Zanzibar

We delayed our honeymoon until we had been married for a few months. It gave us time to save up and plan. We decided on exotic Zanzibar, which had not yet become the popular holiday destination it is today.

Our trip started at the Mbweni Ruins, where we sipped Tamarind juice and swam through the mangroves. We dined on King prawn, followed by King fish, watching the sun set over the ocean. Two figures, silhouetted against the pink wash, poled their dhow across our horizon. Bats darted from trees into the blackness.

In Stone Town we sauntered through the narrow lanes looking at antique bazaars and mini shops. There were no sweets or crisps for sale, and no litter. The local people bore their poverty proudly, and we saw no beggars. In the fish market we watched as octopus were pounded on the muddy floor for traditional tenderising. The air was thick with flies. We saw strange exotic fruit and were offered tastes of Jack fruit and tiny pink bananas.

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We were glad we had pre-booked a guide for the week, as Iddy took us down narrow alleyways we wouldn’t have ventured into on our own. He showed us the local antique bazaars and mini shops displaying baskets of aromatic spices.

We walked around the Anglican cathedral, which was built on the old slave-trading ground, and we scrunched down to enter the dingy dungeon where the slaves were crammed together awaiting their fate. We learnt about the influence of the mixed cultures of Zanzibar, particularly the Arab style buildings, with their ornately carved wooden doors.

Iddy drove us to the Dhow shipyard, where huge wooden boats were being repaired, past the old Portuguese Port, and on to the ruins of the Sultan’s Palace, where vast mango trees once gave shelter to the ladies of the harem. A system of aqueducts was all that remained to show the sophistication of their architecture and engineering. At the highest point of the island were the remains of a steam bath built by the Sultan for his lady.

One cannot visit Zanzibar without doing a Spice tour, and ours took us through fields and farms in our unsuitable footwear. But we soon forgot our discomfort as we were shown the fascinating plant life on which these enterprising people have made their living for centuries. We tasted and touched cloves, cinnamon bark, turmeric and ginger until we smelt like Christmas puddings.

The villages we drove through consisted of little cottages with characteristic roofs in ‘makuti’ or interwoven palm leaves.

The second leg of our holiday was spent at Mapenzi. On our first evening there, while we were enjoying a wonderful candle-lit dinner, mysterious people had been into our bedroom and laid a heart of bougainvillea petals on the bed with a gift and a card wishing us a happy honeymoon. How could it be anything else in such a romantic setting?

Over the next few days we walked many miles along the shore. We snorkelled, we collected shells, we canoed. The whiteness of the palm-fringed beaches was dazzling as we rode bikes far along the hard compacted sand. We returned saddle-sore to paddle through the warm silent ocean, carefully avoiding the minefield of spiny sea urchins. The tide line was a necklace of beautiful shells.

Ras Nungwi is a fishing village located at the extreme northern point of the island. The beach is powdery white sand and the water is clear turquoise. We went there on a bright green bus. We passed baobabs that looked as if they had been planted upside-down, and villages with no plumbing or electricity. There were no dogs, nor any visible wild life. We took fins and snorkels and swam for many hours, just awed by the wonderful marine world. Dolphins performed for us in the distance.

Our five days on the island paradise went far too quickly, and before we knew it, our guide arrived to greet us ‘Habari za asubuhi’, and it was time to leave.

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Holiday Weekends

Vaughn and I were married on a sunny day in November, a small ceremony with close family and a few friends. Edward’s double duties as ‘father of the bride’ and ‘best man’ were interrupted when he had to run off in search of the minister who had been watching rugby and was nowhere to be seen. My little bridesmaid, eighteen-month-old Megan, spied her mother at the far end of the church and tripped on her long dress as she ran down the aisle.

Soon after our wedding, we moved into our own house to begin our new life together. Edward lived with us, and Vaughn’s two daughters spent every second weekend and half the school holidays with us.

Every winter Vaughn and I allowed ourselves one luxury hiking weekend, which meant that instead of tents or communal huts, we stayed in a decent chalet with decent beds and decent hot water showers.

The first time we stayed at Tendele in the Drakensberg Mountains, we planned to spend  a full day walking, then return for a civilised meal of fillet steak and salad with a bottle of red wine.

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We set off in our dry-macs and hiking boots, carrying water and snacks, binoculars and camera. The route we had chosen should have been thirteen kilometres, which was manageable in the day. We started off well, following the yellow hoof prints. The sun came out and the dry-macs went into the backpack.

As I huffed and puffed to what appeared to be the peak, I found a brief levelling off before the next peak. The mountains went on and on and up and up, never seeming to reach the ultimate peak. Somehow our eyes must have become blurred, with sweat in Vaughn’s case and possibly tears in mine, because we found we had inadvertently lost the yellow hoof-prints and were now following the blue ones.

Twenty one kilometres later, just as dusk was falling, we saw Tendele in the distance. Too tired to even make a cup of tea, we fell into bed for a brief snooze before dinner. We never did wake up for that steak.

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A less luxurious spot was Mount Everest, which was only three hours’ drive from Johannesburg. The wind whistled around our tent at night and we were generally in bed by seven o’ clock. The walks were good, and one time we were accompanied the whole day by a friendly brown dog. Fortunately that was not the day that I had my first experience with a chain ladder.

The chain ladder was the only means of access round a sharp corner where the rocks fell away to a deep crevice. I looked at it in horror. And panic. There were animal droppings around, which I pointed out to Vaughn. Even the rabbits shat themselves when they looked down.

But I either had to go on, or walk the ten kilometres or so back the way we had come. So I took a deep breath and tried not to whimper or look down. I was on it. I edged along, my knuckles white and my palms sweating into the rust created by sweat from earlier nervous hikers. Then it was over. My feet were on firm rock. But never again, I thought!

However, we did come across another one, and it was very high, but that was where the dice had landed, so the choice was either up the ladder or down the long snake back.

Before I met Vaughn, he had spent a lot of time under water. He was a keen scuba diver and belonged to a club that organised a dive trip somewhere almost every weekend. Vaughn joined them less often after we were married, but when he did go, he included Edward and myself in the trip.

One time it was arranged for the whole group to stop overnight in a tree house. I had rather grandiose ideas of an elegant little fully equipped cabin placed neatly in the fork of a huge tree. This was not a bit like that. It was big and on several levels. And it involved ladders. There were no furnishings or equipment, just bare boards. Fortunately we had brought plenty of food and water and enough beer to put us all to sleep.

We elected to sleep on the top level, so we put our sleeping bags up there before it got dark. The roof was barely a metre above the level of the floor, so we had to wriggle in and claim our positions. I was between Vaughn and Edward. At bedtime we negotiated the ladder, Vaughn first, shining the torch down, then me, followed by Edward.  I snuggled into my sleeping bag and gasped. There on the ceiling an arm’s reach above my face was a spider the size of my hand. As we shone the torch around, we saw there were about twenty spiders. And we were stuck there because the level below us was wall to wall sleeping bodies.

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I did realise the spiders were probably harmless rain spiders, but the thought of one landing on my face was too horrific. So I tunnelled down into my sleeping bag, pulling it right over my head and sealing the top as best I could. I must have fallen asleep like that because I woke up with a throbbing head. In the morning the spiders had all gone and the campers on the floor below us didn’t believe our story.

Hiking

Apart from enjoying wine, other interests Vaughn and I shared were hiking and classical music. We were able to attend monthly concerts by the Johannesburg Symphony orchestra, and we also joined a hiking club.

Our first hike took us through a hidden paradise. The land was privately owned, and was unknown to the general public. We climbed up a rocky koppie to find a crystal clear pool deep enough for swimming and a cool off. A waterfall cascaded from rocks above and each level we climbed provided another rock pool. There were small fish in the water that nibbled my toes. From the highest point where the water gurgled out of the rocks we could look down and see six or seven blue pools stepped down the mountain. From that moment I was hooked on hiking.

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We went to the next meeting of the Hiking club, which involved slides and refreshments. However, on the table with the tea or coffee were several cakes and a sign saying ‘Only one piece of cake per person please’. We thought perhaps we would look for a different hiking group that drank wine and didn’t watch how much you ate.

So we found another group but we didn’t get that quite right the first time either. We booked a weekend hike, and very conscious of the weight we would be carrying, we packed two-minute noodles, some biltong and tea bags. Fortunately we did take some port, which we had decanted into a plastic bottle. When all the hikers completed the first day of the walk, out came wine and beers from their backpacks, followed by steak, chops, salads and all the makings of a pretty good meal. We felt very miserable breathing in the appetising aroma of their meat grilling as we slurped our little noodle stew. But it was a lesson learnt!

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A New Relationship

Working in Sales seemed to involve a fair amount of friendly banter. However, once I was divorced, I found it much harder to joke in in case anything I said was  taken as a come-on.  Divorcee was not a hat I wore comfortably. If I dressed in anything short or tight I felt as if people, women actually, would think I was a slut and deserved to be divorced. If I tried to look ‘sensible’, I ended up looking frumpy, and I felt as if people, men actually, thought I was a dowdy freak and it was no wonder my husband left me.

One day one of my customers invited me to get a team together for a game of beach volleyball.  I put a notice on the board, and the first person to sign up was a project manager named Vaughn. He worked in a different department so we seldom bumped into each other in the office. He was really enthusiastic about sport, and encouraged many employees to join the volleyball team. As the sport became more popular, we decided to approach the General Manager for some sponsorship. He agreed, but only if we created a Sports and Social Club with a constitution and committee. We co-opted someone from the accounts department and wrote a lengthy constitution.

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At the first official general meeting, Vaughn was elected chairman and I was secretary. Thus we found ourselves thrown together several times a week as we planned a variety of functions and produced a simple newsletter.

Vaughn had been divorced slightly longer than me and helped me feel less of a failure in the relationship business. The first time he asked me out for lunch we were both nervous. We were so inhibited all we could manage to eat were the olives from the Greek salad. Strange how a different slant on a relationship changed our behaviour. Suddenly on our own, we regressed to adolescent self-consciousness.

But we went out again, and it all became easier. We discovered common interests. We both liked wine. Volleyball had been a ‘beer out of the can’ affair. Winter came, and it was good to sit and relax over a fine bottle of red. As we peeled away the outer layers of each other’s personalities we discovered new depths within ourselves.

Around this time Edward and I experienced a role reversal. One night I came home around ten thirty, to find him sitting up, hair standing on end from running his fingers through it.

‘Where on earth have you been?’ he asked. ‘Do you realise it’s half past ten?’

I found the whole situation quite hilarious, bearing in mind the number of nights I’d lain awake worrying about him. But in the sober light of day, I did realise I needed to set a better example and keep our lines of communication open.

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Darkness and Light

There followed a rather dark time between Michael and I culminating in a mutual decision to apply for a divorce. But into that darkness came an unexpected ray of brightness.

Although Nikki had not planned to become a mother at the tender age of nineteen, she found herself blessed by pregnancy, and as the baby grew inside her, so her sparkle and joe de vivre returned. When baby Megan arrived, perfect and beautiful, it was the answer to another prayer.

Telling the children about the divorce was painful, as we felt we had let them down, but both Michael and I believed we would be better parents individually.

I selfishly assumed that both Edward and Nikki plus baby Megan would come and live with me, and was quite taken aback when they decided between themselves that Edward should come with me, as I would need a man about the house, and Nikki would stay with her father, to keep him company. It was logical, as we could only afford a two-bedroomed flat for me. Michael would retain the large family home we had lived in for the past five years.

The day the truck arrived to load up the things Eddie and I were taking, Nikki and I stood in the driveway hugging and crying. It was the end of an era. I felt an immediate change in status. I had swapped the comfortable position of ‘married with children’ to ‘divorcee’. I hated it. I felt a failure. I felt ashamed. I felt too embarrassed to go to church.  I was even embarrassed to go to the shops in case I met friends from my previous life, people I thought would judge me and then have to decide between Michael and me. As many of our friends had been made through either Michael’s work or his cricket, I didn’t expect many of them would be rushing round to visit me in my little flat.

There was also the feeling that I might pose a threat. Women are reluctant to invite a recently divorced female to their parties. You might cry and be an embarrassment. Or you might try to flirt with their husbands. Or their husbands might assume you would be sexually frustrated and they could help out….Anyway, it makes the number uneven around the table.

Having Eddie with me was the best thing for both of us. It forced me to cook a decent meal every night. He did all the male things like putting up curtain rails and hanging pictures and I proudly watched his self-confidence grow. We painted walls together, and watched videos, and I realised that I hadn’t lost the thing I treasured most of all. I was still a mother.

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The first Christmas was painful. We had agreed that the whole family including Michael would spend Christmas Day at my place. On Christmas Eve, Eddie and I sat down together and tucked into our roast turkey dinner, after which we flopped, exhausted from overindulgence, and watched a movie. The next day Michael and the girls arrived for cold meats and salads. Then they all went off to various friends’ places, leaving baby Megan with me. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening holding her and crying into her little blanket. But she seemed to understand, and gave me great comfort.

A Nightmare Phone Call

Our three girls finished school and Catherine and Abi moved out of the house to enjoy their first taste of independence. Catherine went off to look for herself in England. Abi moved into a flat walking distance away from our family home, and Nikki was taking a gap year working as a waitress and saving in anticipation of travelling.

One night at quarter to twelve, we got the phone call that every parent dreads. ‘Your daughter has been involved in a car accident.’

Michael and I threw our clothes on and raced to the hospital, straight through red traffic lights, hazards flashing, horn beeping. We screeched into the Casualty at the same time as an ambulance was drawing up. We looked, as they wheeled a bloodied apparition on the trolley.

‘That’s not Nikki,’ I said, relieved. Then I noticed the patient was wearing one of my jumpers.

‘It is Nikki,’ I screamed, racing after the paramedics. They tried to move me out of the way, but I managed to find my daughter’s injured hand. She couldn’t speak, but she was moaning, so we knew she was alive. But that was about all. Her face was full of glass and swelling rapidly. Her teeth had gone through her lip, and one ear was badly severed. There was blood everywhere.

‘We’re here, Nix,’ I tried to comfort her. ‘Try to relax while the doctor examines you. We’ll be waiting.’

We waited a long half hour, me in and out of the toilet, and Michael alternately pacing the floor wringing his hands, or sitting hunched over with his head in his hands.

Finally the doctor came out and said they were taking her to X-ray and from there she would go into the ICU.

Our other concern was her boyfriend, who had been driving the car. Apparently he had been unconscious when the ambulances arrived, and had been taken to a different hospital, because they didn’t know if he had Medical Insurance.

The diagnosis on Nikki was initially two fractured vertebrae, a ruptured kidney, a broken right ankle and a mutilated left knee, plus extensive cuts and bruising. While I remained with her, Michael drove through to the other hospital to find out how her boyfriend was doing. He returned later to say he had regained consciousness and had escaped with just a swollen hand. He was being kept in for observation after suffering from concussion.

For the next three days I stayed at Nikki’s bedside, rushing home late at night to sort out food and clean clothing for the family. I was very concerned that she was complaining of pains that did not seem to relate to any of her injuries. After five days with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, they discovered she had developed a thrombosis in her thigh.

At that t Catherine was staying with my parents, so when I made the call to England to give them all the news, I was relieved that Catherine had family around to reassure her. Nevertheless, she caught the earliest plane back to be with her sister.

The accident affected Michael badly, and he would wait till we were in bed at night and ask questions like ‘What if she dies?’, questions I could not allow myself to even consider. Maybe it was easier for me, because I thoroughly believed in the power of prayer, and I knew Nikki would get better.

When she was moved into High-care, her friends came to visit her. Some stood in the doorway with utter shock and disbelief on their faces. Others burst into tears.

Just before the accident, Nikki had done a stint of modelling, so I had some current photos to show the plastic surgeon.

‘This is what she looked like last week, and this is what she must look like when you’ve finished with her’, I told the specialist. He managed to do an excellent job and as the scars healed, we saw Nikki’s beautiful face re-emerging.

It was the sudden change from being an active girl to almost complete immobility that had brought on the deep vein thrombosis in Nikki’s leg. But with her back in a brace and both legs in plaster, she came home after a couple of weeks, and I reluctantly returned to work.

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Weekends and Political Change

For a few years from September to March, our weekends were taken up with regattas as Edward had joined the school rowing team. There were very few suitably large dams in Johannesburg, so most of the regattas were held at Roodeplaat Dam, just north of Pretoria. As Michael had a good towing vehicle, we usually pulled the trailer of eights. It really worried me, driving at highway speeds with such expensive boats on the back but fortunately we managed to avoid any mishap.

The rowing fraternity became our social life as we cheered on our lads. Picnics were in traditional South African style, with the aroma of boerewors mingling with wood smoke. Beers were passed round to soothe throats that were hoarse from cheering. All the parents made a point of congratulating the parents of the boys who had done well, and smiled indulgently at the Mums proudly wearing their son’s medals. Our moment of glory came during the SA championships when Edward won his under fifteen individual skulls race.

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The girls didn’t come to every regatta, but when they did, it scored points for Edward among the other boys. He suddenly had many friends among the older rowers as they came to check out the three hot chicks tanning themselves on our blanket.

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On the tenth of May, 1994 everything in South Africa changed. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress was elected the first black President of South Africa. Since his release from prison four years earlier, his policy of reconciliation had won the hearts of the world. That a man treated so badly could speak of peace not revenge, encouragement rather than recriminations, showed what a truly great man he was.

A huge burden of guilt was lifted from white shoulders. Optimism was rife. We celebrated being a rainbow nation. Black and white greeted each other on the street. Mostly. Our part was painless. It was much easier to lose the guilt than to forgive. Suffering cannot just be wiped away with a casual ‘sorry’ and many people still carry their hatred.

Children were bussed in to our local schools from the townships and there was fear that the standard of education would drop. Things did change, though not necessarily for the worse.

Nikki became friendly with Patience, a girl from the ‘black’ township of Soweto. Patience often came to our house, and I worried that she would invite Nikki back to her house. Wonderful though that may have been as a cultural experience, I was too afraid for my child’s safety. I had been fed a diet of media propaganda, and at that stage whites still believed they would risk their lives if they went into a ‘black’ area. Fortunately Patience never did ask Nikki to go home with her.

My hopes were that this generation of children, growing up together, would be able to have empathy with people of different cultures, and would compete equally for academic and sporting achievements. Reward would be on merit, not colour. But sadly, we do not live in an ideal world.