Sunday, 23 August 2009

Happy 19th anniversary, Brian

Brian Keenan was an Irishman working in Beirut when he was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad. He was released four years later, on August 24, 1990.

I will never forget his words when he was released. He described being a hostage as like "a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening".

I wonder if he spent time in prison, planning his release soundbite? I'm sure I would have. That's not intended to sound cynical, especially as I read An evil cradling, the book he wrote about his experiences, and was moved by his raw honesty and brutally truthful descriptions of his life as a hostage.

I remember when he said those words as he arrived back in Ireland. It was a crafting of words that felt like a sword, stabbing sharp into my mind. And as a journalist it made me remember all the times I'd asked the inane questions that journalists do, interviewing people who have gone to hell and back: "So, how do you feel, are you happy to be home?" Usually I've been met with less than honest replies from people saying what they thought I wanted to hear. Here at last was a raw, shocking statement that really put things in perspective. I wish I'd been there to hear it in person.

This picture by Jann Arthus Bertrand of tourists at the Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina, made me think of Brian Keenan, and also made me think about how thoughtless we as a species can be. We often wander, oblivious to the precipice below, forgetting to be thankful for every moment that we are still breathing.

(The picture is from Jann Arthus Bertrand's free wallpaper collection. Really worth a look)

Friday, 21 August 2009

blog connections

Julie at Moments of Perfect Clarity calls them "blog crushes" and I've had a crush on her blog for a while. It's even developed into a connection. I wanted to say friendship, but although we've sent emails and even gifts, I feel a bit like its still very much a surface friendship... kind of like the connections you make in your first week at a new school (yes, I can remember that far back).

Another of my blog connections is Meri at Meri's Musings. She often comments on my posts, and I on hers and I think our lives have taken some similar paths.

Some of the blogs I read are people whose lives are totally, enviously different to mine, like Chinua with his stunning photography and incredibly beautiful children.

(My children are incredibly beautiful too...)

Others are going through different life stages to me and I feel connected to them and their experiences. Helen is like that.

Others, like Jack, I have "met" on other forums and in other places (all virtually) and I've been watching his garden grow for years.

The idea of blog connections is pretty interesting. I often wonder if I am feeling connected to people who I may not have anything in common with in real life. I subscribe to piles of blogs, mostly because I follow meandering paths from one to another and find something that is interesting. I don't always visit again regularly... sometimes its months between one visit and another.

And, of course, I wonder about the people that read my blog. Some show themselves and become followers (thank you!) and others stay hidden, or are just random visitors. I wonder about those of you who keep coming back. What is it about me that resonates with you? And is it the real me that you are "seeing" or are your own interpretations or cultural expectations colouring who you think I am?

Monday, 17 August 2009

the writer formerly known as...

Twenty years after I was born a Brooks, I became a Wilson in one of those happy-ever-after fantasies that didn't quite work out the way I had planned.

But Wilson was a nice name, and eminently preferable to Brooks (which in Afrikaans means underpants or knickers and led to horrible teasing at school) and I quite enjoyed it. It was one of those anonymous names that everyone could spell and I liked the fact that it was totally normal at first look, but had a secret history. The great grandfather of the Mr Wilson I married had emigrated from somewhere near Moscow to the US and like so many others with unpronouncable or "difficult" names (I think it was Tobinofsky) he was given another one. One of the legends is that Wilson was chosen from the phone book, another is that he particularly admired a Wilson (couldn't have been Harold).

So, for the next 25 years or so, I built my name and reputation as the journalist Lynne Wilson ... until I met and married my new happy-ever-after man (for real this time). He was perfect in every way, except for for the fact that his surname wasn't Wilson.

For the first couple of years, he put up with being referred to as Mr Wilson at functions or meetings, but I could see he was unhappy so when I started my own company a few years ago, I decided to drop the Wilson and become Lynne Smit.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Now I'm met with people who, after speaking to me for a while say things like "Oh, you're Lynne Wilson... I thought she had died" or "I wondered what happened to her" and in some situations I am more likely to get work if people know who I was, rather than who I am.

(In the last, particularly awful years of my first marriage I began only using my first name, but beaurocracy made that totally impractical).

So, what to do?

I decided to add the Wilson to my email signature so that people would know who I was, but that was complicated in itself. I couldn't say "nee Wilson" because it wasn't a maiden name (even though Mr Wilson seemed to believe that me and Mary were sisters in the immaculate conception thing, especially when it came to child maintenance). So I decided to put (previously Wilson) in brackets after my name.

Problem solved, or so I thought.

After coming home from holiday to over 600 emails, I decided to cut down on some of my newsletter subscriptions and, very reluctantly, included IRIN in the purge. Unusually, I recieved a reply from a real person, who then went on to ask me what "previously Wilson" meant. Turns out she thought I was being terribly brave and had had a sex change.

Now, while I love the thought of being terribly brave (mostly because I am much braver in thought than in deed) I am left with a new dilemma.

How many of my clients and contacts meet me and think "yoh! those sex change drugs really add on the curves."

How many are surreptitiously looking for my Adam's apple?

So now I am appealing to you...any suggestions? Please??

Saturday, 15 August 2009

talking of trees

trees in the Kruger Park provide sancturies of relaxation

surprising beauty

examples of tenacity

are attacked by termites

and somehow survive

make us feel small

continue to surprise us by their beauty, even in death

and are destroyed by elephants!

signs on the way

We saw some fun signs while we were away. Like this one at Letaba Camp in the Kruger Park:

here's what a sausage fruit looks like, in case you were wondering.

and this one at the God's Window lookout at the Blyde River Canyon was my favourite:

Friday, 14 August 2009

predators large and small

We left Skukuza when the gates opened at 6am, fortified by some strong coffee sold by an enterprising guy at the gate in the predawn chill. It was Greg's first trip to Kruger, and I was really hoping that he'd get to see some lions so I was really pleased when we came across this group, right on the edge of the road. The biggest male (not in this picture) turned and looked right at Greg as he was taking his picture. The resultant shivery hands are the reason that the photo was too much of a blur to publish here! One becomes very aware that the car provides a very false sense of security, and the lions could break their way into them if they realised what tastey morsels were travelling inside!

Less than 100m down the road, we met this group of affectionate giraffe. We noticed during our stay that giraffe tend to travel in threes. Not sure why.

Greg's breakfast toasted sandwich at a picnic spot on the way to Satara was a great attraction to the yellow billed hornbill.

They remind me of velociraptors!

the starlings seem a lot more gentle, but are equally keen to help themselves to any crumbs that may fall. There are signs all over warning people not to feed the animals, but the birds obviously can't read.

we saw some cute vervet monkeys at Satara

and an African Scops owl, no bigger than my hand

some "wild cows," according to Greg, otherwise known as buffalo!

and a sign that was necessary to explain the very green water at Orpen dam where we saw a mother hippo lead her teeny tiny baby into the water. See? that small shape behind her?

We were so ready for bed when we arrived at Olifants that we went to sleep without supper at 6.30pm! Relaxing is exhausting!

boiling frogs

When we returned to Blue Jay after our three days in Kruger, we met a mother and son from Zimbabwe who were staying there too. Two things struck me about them... the first was that the son was incredibly well behaved and the second was that the mother was overwhelmingly positive about life in Bulawayo where she lives and works as an accountant.

"There's just so much going on," she said. "There are businesses opening, big developments happening, and we even have a choice of meat in the butcher!"

I was interested by her enthusiasm, in part because it was so different to anything I'd heard about Zimbabwe in a while. Its also a very different impression to the one that my old boss, Wilmot James, got when he was on a fact-finding mission.

The fact that we parted on bad terms doesn't mean that I don't respect his judgement or his insights, so I found the contrast between her impression and his particularly intersting. His views are here

When we were chatting the following morning, Philip (the owner of Blue Jay) commented that people get so used to how bad things are that they see even the smallest changes as significant. That reminded me about how happy she had been about the choice of meat in the butcher ... choice is incredible when seen in the light of years of empty shelves.

Wilmot commented in his article "It is only possible to do this, South Africans should note, if you do not have good governance. ZANU PF fused with and became indistinguishable from government. Parliament exercised little to no oversight over the executive. Mugabe ran the Treasury and the Reserve Bank as if they were his personal bank accounts. It is only possible to have a government that may raid private bank accounts and pension funds if the judiciary is politically pliable, corrupt and obsequious. A truly independent judiciary protects citizens against the abuse of power."

Remember that old story about boiling frogs? If you put them in the pot when the water is cold, they make no attempt to escape as the water gets gradually hotter and hotter until it is too late and they are cooked. Pop them in, (with the outsiders' perception) when the water is already heating up, and they jump straight out.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

day three, belatedly

The internet connection was so bad that I decided that work, and my blog, would have to wait until I got back.

Day three saw us up bright and early so that we could be at the Kruger Park gates when they opened at 6am. We actually got there at about 5.45, but there were already 11 cars ahead of us.

The game reserve is a great place to observe human behaviour too... we were amused by the strategies of people who wanted to be first in the queue to check in. Some double-parked right next to the reception hut. Others dropped off the sprinter in their party, who rushed up to the door. We couldn't see the point of all the oneupmanship, so we ended up about 20th in the queue at reception. And it really made no difference at all... it was still dark when we got through the final entrance gate anyway!

We saw lots of elephants, in their natural setting. No chance of checking their teeth!

this is a saddle beaked stork at a waterhole near Skukuza, the camp where we spent our first night in the park.

These waterbuck were very reluctant to have a drink, and eventually left without even a sip.

the crocodile is still hard to see... but he's there. waiting patiently.

We ended the day with an afternoon snooze, a couple of sundowners next to the river and dinner under the bats at Skukuza's take away restaurant. It was probably the worst meal I had had in a long time, but the bats were fascinating. Probably a horribly unhealthy place to sit, but I don't think any bat droppings got into the food. I'd have noticed. Anything would have improved the flavour of the pasta Alfredo I chose.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

up close...

Today was the second day of our holiday, and it was totally unforgettable. Yes, that is a real elephant... his name is Casper and he is 23 years old... not yet fully grown.

He was bought by a Namibian farmer who realised that he had taken on far more than he could handle when Casper and his brothers reached adolescence and, like any adolescents without adult supervision, began wreaking havoc. He was rescued from being shot by the Elephant Sanctuary, where he now lives.

It was a incredible privilege to get a chance to see elephants (Casper and a 10-year-old, Kitso)so close, and to touch them and really interact with them.

I kept feeling that I should ask permission as we were shown their amazing, wrinkly hide and were able to feel the delicate smooth skin of their ears. I even touched his tongue... it felt like a marshmallow!

The elephants are fairly... but not completely tame, so you always get the impression that they are allowing you to interact with them, rather than being forced to. The food treats probably help too!

They only do things that they would do naturally in the wild... like lifting their trunks or kneeling down ... and these behavours have been reinforced with the treats so that they respond to commands.

Their trainer made a comparison with many of the working elephants in Asia which he says have their spirits broken so that they will work for man.

"An African elephant will fight back if you try to do that," he claimed. "He'll kill you if you try to force him to do something or hurt him."

Tonight is our second night in the totally beautiful Blue Jay Lodge and we leave at 5.15am tomorrow, to be at the Kruger Park gates when they open at 6am.

Don't you just love mosquito nets? And luckily because it is winter, there is no real need for them!