Friday, October 14, 2005

Lust at 30,000 feet

WELL! And here I thought all of you were better than that....!

I mean, there WERE a few of you. Raechel donated blood the other day.

Twenty-three other people wrote and said “thanks, I’ll take a taxi from now on, if I’ve had too much to drink -- appreciate the reminder and thank you for your honesty.”

Two true friends, Teri and Cat, wrote to remind me that all is forgiven, in this life and the next. Thanks for that also, it’s a comfort.

BUT, the overwhelming response has been this: “E, we love your writing. Are you going to write a book?!?!?! It’s so much fun to read about all your adventures, what with the police in the UK, and things in South Africa, and all about the crime and the birds and the wild animals and the hijackings and all of it. So very VERY exciting. But ... we WANT more SEX!”

Ladies (and gents), I am shocked. Shocked. Has it all come down to this?

Apparently, yes.

So, I guess I’m going to have to entertain you. But be warned, it’s pretty tame. Mr. D has acquired copyright protection for all his tricks, so can’t divulge any of that. Sorry about that, Moira, since you asked. But your speculations ARE correct.

I'm afraid that you’ll just have to be amused by my near misses. First up, the flight back to Jo’burg.

Well, what could have possibly happened... that I could write about? I sat down in the plane, in my window seat. FINALLY, I got a window seat! Maybe because I was NOT flying with Mr. D and Miss T? Such selfish pleasures. I would be able to lean against the window and SLEEP, perhaps SLEEP, at last. First time in ages. Not like my time in the ‘slammer’, those fabulous four hours in Woking, where I refused to even SIT down. Not like my last night in the UK, worrying about whether I’d be jailed the next morning, or fined £5000, or what? No, I could sleep, maybe, this evening, this night, on the plane.

I pulled out my “Learn Afrikaans” book and my CD player and snuggled down to wait for takeoff and then dinner. My two seat mates stifled snorts.

“You don’t HAVE to learn that, you know,” said an older woman, on the aisle. “I mean, English is the main language in South Africa. Afrikaans is just truly, TRULY not necessary. Besides, there are eleven official languages in South Africa. Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and so on.”

“Yeah, yes, I know that, but thank you very much. I just enjoy studying languages, really.” I replied. “I took French and Russian in high school, then French in college and more or less continued it up until now, plus also a year of German at university. I like a challenge. And a good friend of mine, his first language is Afrikaans. So I thought it would be fun to try.”

“Well, then, if it’s for fun. Why not?” We chatted a little. Her kids, like mine, were spread all over the planet. Hers: Australia, England, New Zealand. Mine: England, US, South Africa. We commiserated, then settled down for the flight.

But the guy between us was reading over my shoulder and at the same time, trying to choke back his laughter.

“Goeiemore, Meneer. Hoe gaan dit met u?,” I read, silently. (“Good morning, sir, how are you?”) My Dialogue Number One was obviously incredibly stupid and entertaining for a native Afrikaans speaker.

“So, is this easy for you?,” I asked him.

“Easy! Hah, ja! Are you just beginning?” This strapping Boer farm boy couldn’t conceal his amusement.

“Well, yes, I am. Is this your own tongue? What you spoke growing up?”

“Sure, ja. Good luck.” He laughed again. He was sweet, and had a very strong Afrikaans accent.

“Thanks, m’dear. Are you going home? Are you from South Africa?” I couldn’t resist inquiring.

“Sure, ja, I’ve been living and working in Ireland for the last three years. Just going home now. Finally. At last.”

“Will you be going back to Ireland later?”

“Nee. Never. I’m going home now.” He stared at his hands.

And he rubbed his hands together. Over and over. Big hands. He was a big, tall farm boy. Strong, really handsome. They ALL are handsome, here, ladies. You’d better come visit and see for yourself. This guy was going home to sunshine, to his land, and to his family.

Our plane taxied out to the runway. I was mentally doing the Dialogue One exercises, and out of the corner of my eye, watching my seat mate stare at his hands.

We took off. He rubbed his hands together, again ... again.... again. Then, as we climbed into the sky, he sank back into his seat. Relaxed now, maybe? Relieved? Poor baby. He must have been tense about the takeoff.

We had dinner. We watched movies (me, “The Interpreter.”, with Nicole Kidman, about Africa. How appropriate!) I shortly after decided to pursue the sleep that had been eluding me for months and months, and curled up in my seat to snooze. I was conscious of the fact that this big farm guy next to me couldn’t, wouldn’t possibly ever get comfortable in the middle seat. I felt guilty -- that’s the seat where I’m usually tortured, flying between Mr. D and Miss T. My farm lad squirmed around a lot, trying to find a restful position. He tried to stretch his long legs out in front of him, but he didn’t settle down. Because he just couldn’t fit, quite honestly. I surreptitiously folded up the arm rest between us, in order to give him (and me) some more room to spread out in.

At about two am, I woke up. Gosh! I HAD been sleeping! Surprise! O, joy! But the plane was bouncing all around in major MAJOR major turbulence. I turned on the tv’s map channel. Just approaching the equator now, flying over the Democratic Republic of Congo. Past Kinshasa, Bandundu, Mbuji-Mayi. Well, thunderstorms would be normal here. Looked out the window. I could see lightning flashing, and massive thunderheads all around. The night sky lit up. A thick soft cotton-wool carpet of clouds was illuminated far below. Flashes of lightning popped here and there, muted and dimmed, looking like a torch beam playing under a blanket, perhaps. Here... there... again there... again... again.... It was spectacular. And above us, beautiful stars, brilliant, shining still, above the storm below. It was hard to believe that we were way up here, so far above the weather.

And then all of a sudden, we were flying directly into a pile of clouds. All the way up here.

You can’t imagine the jouncing. I closed my eyes, trying to sleep again, pretending to sleep. Up! Down! Down again, more and more. Up, up, bounce! UP!!! My Boer friend, poor thing, was shifting in his seat, wringing his hands. All the plane’s lights were off, now. Dark, except for the lightning, which was exploding all around us.

Suddenly, the plane bounced up really violently. I couldn’t help it; my eyes popped open and I found myself staring into his terrified eyes in the lightning’s brilliant glare. Eyes big as saucers. Both of us. I grabbed... well, his muscled thigh, actually, since I’d thoughtfully put up the arm rest between us. We looked at each other for a moment.. and another long moment... and... then I smiled, loosened my grip on his leg, and turned away, toward the window. And tried, again, to go back to sleep.

I mean, really. What were the alternatives? Could have invited him back to the loo for initiation into the Mile High Club, but hey, I’m not a member myself. Although it might have calmed him down and distracted him. But he seemed way too preoccupied to be much fun. And besides, the “seat belts” sign was on.... and you know me, I like to follow the rules most of the time. So I worked on my “sleeping” plan instead. Successfully. It was truly restful, being bounced to sleep at 30,000 feet. So things CAN go well! In a controlled, sensible, nice way. I can pretend to be normal, and do things like normal people do things.

But I just do lovvvvve turbulence!

We landed in Jo’burg on time, a little early in fact.

As we touched down, he wiped his eyes. Brushed tears away, actually, from both eyes. He hid his face in his big hands and sighed deeply.

I said, “Hey, man. You okay? You glad to be here?”

“Ja. Ja.... ja,werklik....” or something like that. “Yes, yes, ...yes, really....”

“Will you ever go back to Ireland?”

He sat up straighter, and looked at me. “I will never fly again. Never. Ever again. Never.”

My God. Was it me? Or was it the weather? Poor guy.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Scarlet Letter

I texted Sooz “I’m free!!!” and we met at the car. I’d spent a bit more money than Sooz had this morning (because you KNOW what a bargain TKMaxx always is!) Free, free, free! I’m free! (Well, not “free” to Mr D. I’m the most expensive wife he’s ever had. Good thing he has no basis of comparison or he might trade me in.) Texted the dear man, and Aphrodite, and a few friends, and time to pack, eat lunch, and grab a cab to Heathrow.

Thus, Parents’ Weekend. It couldn’t have been more memorable, really.

A couple of follow-up notes in this whole deal. One was that my friend, the hostess on Friday, was simply horrified to hear what had happened. She said, “Gosh, we only opened two bottles of bubbly amongst the three of us, and more than half of the second bottle was still here when you left! What HAPPENED?” To which I can only say, “Who knows?!” I hadn’t had anything to drink before I went, but I also had hardly eaten anything all day. Half to three-quarters of a bottle of champagne, starting on an empty stomach, and the last glass close to midnight? I guess I’m a cheap date. Take note, boys. Although of course my darling Mr. D is finding me more and more expensive by the minute. Poor baby.

But the most interesting thing about this is how many people have written back and said, “There but for the grace of God go I.....” (All quotations are unattributed, by the way, to protect the innocent... or rather, as my sister pointed out, to protect the “not-yet-caught”. As Martha said, “If a person has driven while over the limit, but hasn’t been caught, it doesn’t make her a more virtuous person than the person who has been arrested. It simply means she hasn’t been caught. Yet. That’s all.”)

Or others who said, ”Thanks for the wake-up call, E. We’ve all done it. You were just so unlucky. So thanks for your honesty in sharing the story! We all needed to hear it!”

Or “That happened to me in 1995...”, “in 1989....”, “in 2000....” Who knew? Thank goodness we don’t all have to wear scarlet letters for our failings. Frankly, my bosom isn’t big enough to hold letters for all the sins I’ve probably committed. (That’s the problem with being flat-chested, you always have to have the letters made so damn small.)

But the very best response, because it made me laugh so hard, was from Ana, who said, “I was surfing the web, and came up with this support group for you just, follow the link.

Yeah, sometimes all you can do is laugh. It’s so much better than the alternative, a bathtub full of tears.

It's all about me

The usher beckoned to me... come over here.

I crossed over to stand behind a barrier. “Are you Mrs. D, of Ascot? Is your date of birth.... “ The identifying questions began. The charges were read. “And how do you plan to plead?”

“Guilty, sir.” There, that part’s done.

The duty solicitor had come in when I was called forward, and now he described my situation for me to the magistrates (so I didn’t have to represent myself after all!) The clerk, the magistrates, and the solicitor went over the charge (which was “only” drink/drive, not insurance too -- whew!) They discussed my intention to ask to take the Drink/Drive course if I could, and my ability and intention to pay my fine. I was grateful that I didn’t have to speak much myself. (In fact, I’ve always really enjoyed public speaking, but somehow this wasn’t quite the same thing. From high school graduation speaker, speaking to 3,000, to a criminal in court, speaking to 8. Hmmmm.)

The magistrates adjourned to decide my fate.

“Mrs. D. In view of the circumstances, and the fact that you will be leaving the country today, we wish to proceed in the most expeditious manner. We thus impose a fine of £250, with an additional £55 court fees. Unfortunately, and I think this will hit you harder, we must also suspend your license for one year, the mandatory minimum revocation time period. However, we will allow you to take the DDE course, if you are able, which would reduce the revocation period by three months. Understanding, of course, that it may be impossible for you to schedule it, since you will be living in South Africa. And you will be able to reapply to get your license back again after the year is up. Meanwhile, you are not allowed to drive on any roadway in the United Kingdom, in any motor vehicle, for a period of one year. Do you understand?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Very good. And may I say best of luck in South Africa, Mrs. D. The usher will show you out.”

Well. Done and dusted. The best news was that I would be able to get my license back in a year. I so valued it, and had worked so hard to FINALLY get it. Interestingly, they don’t put “points” on your license, they just take it away. So the “New Driver’s Law”, which suspends your license if you get too many points, and means you have to start all over again, with theory and practical tests repeated, didn’t apply! How perversely lucky for me!

I paid my fine by credit card, and then remembered to ask for a copy of the criminal charge sheet, since I had nothing else to document this ... unique.... experience. The usher was only to happy to make a photocopy, two even. She smiled radiantly and said, “Well, I don’t know why you shouldn’t have a copy. It’s all about YOU!”

Right. All about me.

Thank goodness there’s more to me than just that.

The unfortunate Mr. Brooks

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Good thing they don’t have clocks that make that noise anymore. It would have made me crazy. Like I needed the encouragement! So I watched as person after person signed in, sat for a while, and got called into court. It was a big crowd, but slowly dwindling.

And it was a pretty interesting collection of people. Some of the young guys knew each other.

“Oi, mate, whotcha doin’ here?” with a big slap on the shoulder.

“Ah, criminal mischief. You?”

“Drinkin.” They all laughed.

Another girl, all dressed in black, signed in with the receptionist. When asked to fill in the “Means” form, she said in a clear voice, “Ah can’t read na write.” The boys in line behind her giggled, poked each other, and whispered.

“You can go over there to that desk, Miss, and those people will help you out.” An elderly couple sat together at a desk across the room, ready to assist. The girl headed over that way, but she almost walked by the desk. Perhaps because she couldn’t even read the sign, “HELP DESK”? My goodness. This was definitely a different group of people than I usually hung out with on Mondays.

There was a red-headed French girl with her solicitor. I eavesdropped to practice my French but never heard what the charges were (nosy!) There was a woman who looked like she slept on the street, and like she’d recently been beaten up. And fully 2/3 of the people in the waiting room were holding the DDE pamphlet (Drink/Drive Education, whereby you can reduce the length of your license suspension). So I wasn’t the only silly prat in on this charge. Not by a long shot.

Time passed. Files were delivered, numerous times. At last, the receptionist looked over at me, and flashed me a quick smile. My file had arrived. “You’ll be next.”

Now, the usher for Court 2 showed me into the courtroom. Again, “Just sit in the back here, while the magistrates finish the case before you. You’ll be next.”

So I got to listen to the case of poor Mr. Brooks. This thin, somber 20-year old kid had backed out of a train station carpark at high speed, run over a grassy bank, crashed his car, and had gotten arrested for reckless driving.

The clerk read out the complaint, and then the clerk said, “Well, Mr. Brooks, do you have anything to say for yourself?”

The kid replied in a small voice, “Ah was stoopid?”

“Well, yes, agreed, but can you explain your actions?”

“Nah, not really.”

The clerk continued questioning. “Apparently, your license was revoked in 2003. When did you apply to get it back?”

The kid looked confused. “Ah didn’t. Ah didn’t know ah had to. To apply.”

“They would have sent you a letter, telling you to reapply.”

“Ah can’t really read.”

The clerk interrupted. “You can’t read?! How on earth did you pass the theory test?”

“It was hard.... really hard.” whispered the boy.

“So you can read and write a little bit. But now also, it seems that you were driving without a license. And thus, I’m sure, without insurance. Do you understand that these are additional crimes?”

Expressionless, the boy answered, “Yes. Yes. Ah do now.”

The magistrates adjourned to another room to deliberate. They were gone forever.

When they came back, they ended up revoking his license for a further year, fining him for multiple charges, and querying him about how he’d pay the fines. It seemed like an impossible puzzle, because the kid needed to be able to drive to get to his job, so as to get paid, so that he could then pay his fines. It didn’t look very promising. And somehow I imagined that tomorrow, he’d be driving to work again, revoked license or not.

“You may go.” And he left.

Annual income? Zip

You want to know what Magistrates’ Court in Woking is like, on a Monday morning in early October? Here ya go.

I was waiting in line, upstairs in the courthouse waiting area. Well, I wasn’t really in the queue anymore -- I’d been processed already. But I couldn’t sit down. I was too tense, worrying about whether my Woking police report was going to show up in time -- for me to be tried, to get back to Ascot to pick up my luggage, and to grab a cab to Heathrow for my 7:05 flight to Jo’burg. So I was (calmly) pacing around, lurking near reception so I’d be aware when my file arrived. If it did.

But I also had something else to worry about this morning. When I checked in with reception, and the woman asked what I was charged with, I answered, “Drink/drive.”

She replied, “And lack of insurance?”

Insurance? INSURANCE!!!! Bl-----dy effin’ heck, no one said anything about INSURANCE! I couldn’t believe it.

“Hey, I DID have insurance. I DO have insurance! No one said anything about charging me about insurance. And the police didn’t tell me to bring in my insurance certificate.”

“Oh, well, it’s standard procedure. Usually people don’t carry their insurance certificate in the car with them. So ordinarily, the police charge you with drink/drive AND lack of insurance. That way, you have to prove you have insurance when you show up.” My heart sank.

My GOD. I wracked my brain. I KNEW no one had mentioned insurance.... although.... now that I thought about it, Aphrodite had mentioned that while she was in the Honda, while the officer drove her home, he had asked her if I was insured to drive that car.

Aphrodite, my darling daughter, had been indignant. Coolly indignant, of course, but still. “Of COURSE she’s insured! You should hear, she’s given my older brothers the ‘what-for’ about insurance so many times it’s not even funny. She’s a complete stickler about that. No one can drive our cars unless they’re insured. It’s absolutely no joke in our family.”

I thought about that, and I tried to relax. Thinking that surely someone would have told me about the insurance charge before now, if there was one. Really, it didn’t seem likely, given how kind and helpful the Woking police had been.They wouldn’t have charged me, I didn’t think, without making it quite clear. But now I no longer had my own copy of my charge sheet. I’d left it with the crabby magistrate in Redhill, so I couldn’t be sure. Grrrr.

Are you good at dealing with anxiety? You think so?

Try worrying about this stuff. It does put things in perspective, that’s for sure. And still, even, it all could have been so so much worse. Someone could have ended up dead, something awful could have happened. An irreparable mistake might have been made. This was not SO SO bad, in the vast scheme of things.

I saw the duty solicitor, lovely man, who explained what would most likely happen. I had to fill out a “Means” form, where you describe your financial situation (income,outgo). Hmmm, how much do I spend on electricity per month? council tax? shoes? cappuccinos? (not really those last two!) What’s my yearly income? Zero? (Ooooh. Hopefully Mr. D enjoys my company, because I sure don’t contribute much financially. More of fiscal DRAIN, don’t you agree? Especially today.) Then the duty solicitor sent me back out, to wait.

Free advice from a lawyer?? Wow.

Sooz gave me a ride to court on Monday morning. She decided she really needed to make a trip to TKMaxx in Woking, and since the courthouse was right nearby, well, why not go together? A little bit of shopping, a little bit of the criminal justice system.... just the thing for a dull Monday. Gosh, I have such nice friends. Where would I be without them?

In fact, my first reaction regarding this whole thing was, “I’m not telling anybody!” But that’s just not me. I mean, if you don’t tell anyone, you just have to go it alone, while at the same time you’re pretending to be someone you’re not. That is, someone who’s perfect, and who doesn’t make mistakes.

A friend of Mr. D's, from a long time ago, is a pilot. One of the expressions that Dave often used was from pilot school: “Climb, Confess, Communicate”. That is, if you make a mistake while flying, Climb (gain yourself some altitude, and thus some time), Confess (admit your mistake and get it out in the open so people can know how to help you), and Communicate (keep talking until you’ve sorted yourself out). I always thought that was a pretty good motto for life too. Although some days I can’t remember all three c’s... let’s see, climb, communicate, collide?........ uh, no... that’s not right.... hmmmm)

So I started telling some of my friends on Sunday, and knew that eventually I’d have to spill the beans to everybody, because, let’s face it, it’s such a great and stupid story, really. And for all of you, I hope, so flippin’ EDUCATIONAL. Here you are now, my pal, reading this. What will I go through to entertain you? And I really hope you learn something, too. That IS the ultimate point.

Anyway, Sooz was probably a little bit fascinated to be driving a criminal to court. Wouldn’t you be? Isn’t it interesting to be my friend??? (Don’t answer that please.)

We got to Woking at 8:45 am, and I trotted off to find those solicitors’ offices. Rang the bell at the first one, and explained my situation. “I was arrested on Friday night, I have to appear in court in 45 minutes, and I need a lawyer.” American brass, 8:55 am.

“What kind of offence?”


“We don’t do that kind of law. But they do next door. Try them.”

Ooooh-kay. Fifty percent of the options eliminated.

Rang the bell next door. I explained myself again (maybe I’ll just wear a sandwich board, or a scarlet “D/D”?) A woman invited me into her office.

“Here it is, then. It’s pretty cut and dried if you were over 35 but under 50 on the breath test. They’ll take away your license for a year, and fine you. You can ask to participate in a Drink/Drive Education course, which would reduce the license revocation by three months. Though of course, if you’re living now in South Africa you might not be able to complete that course. And ask for the duty solicitor when he comes in. He can give you more help if you need it.”

I thanked her profusely, and she said, “Well, we don’t usually give out free advice.... but it IS Monday morning....” And there is a God.

Off to the courthouse. I was first in line for the duty solicitor, but as I checked in at the front desk, my heart sank when the receptionist said, “You’re not on my list.”

Not on her LIST! Omigod! Not again! How could this be? I explained what had happened so far.

“Oh my, your file is probably over at Redhill today.”

Redhill? REDHILL? RED effin’ HILL!!???!!

Arggghhhh! I was starting to feel seriously hysterical, but managed to hold all the raw, soul-scorching screaming inside me. Honest, I’m surprised she couldn’t hear it herself (“excuse me, my dear, can you hear the wretched tormented cries of 187 damned souls, dancing over the hickory scented flames of some Louisiana bonfire? No? Bless you, you must be a good, truly God-fearing woman.....cuz what I’m hearing right now in my head is ... pretty much like what I just described.....My God, the screams.....”).... OK, la dee dah. Oooo, yes, I deal with this sort of thing every day, no problemo. Tra la la. Let’s get a grip here. My thoughts were just spinning around and round.

“Oh dear.” I tried to look calm.

“But don’t worry, we can probably get a copy of it. The police station is right next door.”

Well thank goodness for that. I thought about offering to walk over and pick it up myself but figured it was pointless. Although I could have had a little reunion with my new police buddies. They were so much fun.

“Just have a seat. The duty solicitor will call you in, after a while. And you’re first on my list for unscheduled appearances in court.”

So then I got to hang out and watch the show.

See you in court!

Oh no! Oh Lord! I’m representing mySELF! This is TERRIBLE! I can’t represent MYSELF! Why didn’t I watch more Perry Mason? Or even Rumpole of the Bailey? Or Inspector Morse! Anything! Man, I’m really in the shite now. Panic set in.

“We understand you were arrested for a drink/drive offense, and because you are flying out of the country on Monday, the Woking police sent you over here this morning. However, they really shouldn’t have done that, so we will have to have you appear in court in Woking on Monday morning. What kind of a license do you have?”

What kind of a license? What kind of a license?? I was representing myself! O God! What kind? What KIND? My mind froze. What kind WAS it? Provisional? No. Learner’s? No. Permanent? God, I couldn’t think.

“Uh, a real one?” I answered. “It’s pink.”

The magistrate rolled his eyes. “No, no, NOOOOO! Is it a BRITISH license?”

“Oh, yes, sir, definitely yes. I just got it in June.” Sad, that. (Especially when my poor long-suffering driving instructor finds out.)

“Well, fine. Just make sure that when you show up in court on Monday, you bring both parts of your license: the photocard, and the paper counterpart license as well.”

I grimaced. This was going to irritate him some more.

“Yessssss?”, he hissed.

“Sir, my counterpart licence is in a container, sailing over the sea with all my other household goods, to South Africa. I’m afraid I didn’t forsee needing it in the interim.”

“Never mind. They can look up your record with the DVLA on Monday. You’ll need to mail the counterpart in later. Because you’ve shown good faith in showing up here today, the court releases you now, to appear in court in Woking on Monday October 10, at 9:45 am. Your case is adjourned until then.”

The usher smiled at me reassuringly, took my arm, and escorted me out of the courtroom.

Great! Free! And I’d have my license for the rest of the weekend anyway, which was convenient. So I walked back to the train station, caught the Gatwick Express back toward Wokingham, fell deeply, deeply, deeply asleep on the train (first time in three months!), jumped out at Guildford when they announced “Transfer here for Ascot”, left my favorite black sweater on the train (did manage to bring the pink coat), found that the train I’d chosen to transfer to had been cancelled (typical Southwest Trains... ), caught the next Gatwick Express, all over again, to Wokingham, and then got the local back to Ascot, and back to Sooz’s. What a trip. What stinking bad luck. And all for nothing.

At Sooz’s, I ripped the kitchen apart, looking for the yellow pages, to try to find a lawyer. Since now I figured one might be handy. However, the only phone book that turned up was for Slough, which was going to be no help in Woking on Monday morning. Looked online finally, and found two lawyers in Woking, right near Woking Magistrates’ Court. Walking distance. Do you think they planned it that way, for all of us license-losers?

I spent the rest of the weekend trying not to worry, and canceling my appointments for Monday (sorry Mike! sorry Ronalee!). I did have a super time with Aphrodite; we shared Sunday breakfast with family friends, and spent Sunday evening with more of my favorite people at another dinner party. No drinks this time, at all. Somehow that would have seemed ... a bit... stupid. And overall, I tried to really savor my last day of driving on English roads for at least a year.

One more night’s sleep... and then,tomorrow.... Woking Magistrates’ Court.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Mrs. D..., of Ascot

In the courthouse lobby, I was suddenly aware of a uniformed man coming toward me.

“May I help you, Madam? What are you doing here?” Man, I’m being “madam”ed to death this weekend. And this is not good. “What am I DOING here?” You tell me, brother! I’m trying to be tried! And this is already really trying!!!

“I’m supposed to appear in court this morning. Where should I go?”

The man looked at another uniformed woman who’d come over to join us. They raised their eyebrows, and then he smiled and said, “Well, you’re not on our list. Who sent you here?”

“I was arrested Friday night, well, just last night, 10 hours ago. And the Woking Police sent me over here, because I’m flying out of the country, to South Africa, on Monday night.”

“Oh dear, oh dear,” said the woman. “I don’t know WHY they keep doing this. They really shouldn’t have sent you here. This court is just for people who are still in custody, still under arrest. Those police in Woking! We know they’re TRYING to help, but.....”

Oh great, so now what? Suddenly I’m wishing I’m still under arrest?! How quirky!

The man said, “Let me go up and check with the clerk. Maybe they’ve received your file after all.”
Oh oh. Crap..... My 50-page file has gone missing in the five hours since I checked out of the Woking “Spa”? Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. This is suddenly looking quite bad.

“Wait here, madam, and I’ll go check.”

Eventually, the usher (that’s what his official title was) ushered me into the court room, where the clerk said, “Your file’s not here. This court is for people who are still under arrest. They usually arrive in a police van, and the file comes with them. I imagine your file is still at the Woking police station. But wait around for a half hour, and we’ll see if it turns up.”

Hoo boy. So, I sat in the waiting room. No, I (casually) paced around the waiting room. It just seemed like such a bore to sit down. I simply couldn’t.

Finally, at about 11am, I was recalled into the court room. The usher showed me in.

“Just sit here in the back. They’ll call you forward in a minute, to adjourn your case until Monday.”

I sat there, listening to the proceedings, daydreaming a little bit. And then....

“MRS. D ... OF ASCOT.” A deep voice boomed throughout the courtroom.

Time slowed down. Sort of a slow motion effect, really. All heads in the magistrates’ court swiveled completely around, turning to get a good look at me: MRS. D, OF ASCOT. (Just like in The Exorcist. Did you KNOW people’s heads could turn that far round? No, I was surprised too.)

The lawyers. The magistrates. The other people in the gallery. The transcribers. Everyone gawped shamelessly. I was suddenly conscious of how far away I was from Ascot, and how totally overdressed I was for this occasion. Should have taken off all the jewelry and not worn the fashionable pink woolen coat. Oh well, too late now. Mrs. D of Ascot must step forward to address the magistrates.

“Just stand there, at the back of the court. No, over there. No, No, NO! In FRONT of the railing.”

My God, it was already a huge production, because I couldn’t even stand in the right place, and the magistrate sounded very testy. He probably had other things to do on a Saturday, like trim the hedges at home or something, and here I was trying to ruin his day. The usher finally gently pushed me into the right place and there, we were ready to begin.

“Where’s her solicitor?” asked the magistrate.

“She’s representing herself, sir,” replied someone.

Punctuality counts

“Aren’t you having just a wonderful parents weekend? Isn’t it great? What have you been up to?”

Lynn had just run over and given me a massive surprise hug. What a wonderful welcome!

I was out on the football pitch at Aphrodite’s school Saturday afternoon, enjoying her soccer game and the wonderful crisp autumn weather. Well, not SO crisp, actually, because this was England, but good enough. Everyone was greeting me, hugs and smiles, and all were so curious. “What did you do this morning? Did you and Aphrodite do something fun? How’s Jo’burg? Tell us where you’ve been!”

And there I stood thinking, “What part of Magistrates’ Court on a Saturday morning in Redhill, Surrey, can I possibly explain?”

I smiled, and said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s been fun. Interesting, even, with a capital ‘I’...”

So. I dropped A off at school at 7:30 am Saturday for her SAT II exams, then zipped back to Ascot station to catch the 8:13 to Wokingham, for a transfer to the Gatwick Express (second to last stop: Redhill). I figured I was going to lose my license that very day, so I’d better leave the car at Ascot station, close to Sooz and Don’s, so I could get someone nearby to drive it back to the house later on.

The train ride was endless. Endless. And I had so much time to think about all of it. Insurance. My driving license. My new arrest record. The size of the upcoming fine. What were my parents going to say? My kids? My friends? Yuk. What a mess. Of course, I was sure I could think of something good about it. I thought. I kept thinking.... not much, really, is good about this.

I needed my Mom to show up, in some kind of shimmering vision, with one of her familiar and soothing sayings. “Every cloud has a silver lining?” Could work.

So! There! Good material to write about, hey? I won’t be worrying about writer’s block any time soon! Trala! I felt so much better. Thanks, Mom!

But somehow, the train just didn’t seem to be getting there fast enough. I was supposed to be there by 9:45, and it was 9:30 and we still weren’t close yet, and I had no idea how to find the Magistrates’ Court House, and almost no money on me. Only euro and rand, I suddenly realized as I looked through my wallet. How utterly inconvenient.

I got pretty tense, because you really can’t pace on a train the way you can in a jail cell, take my word for it, but the train finally arrived in Redhill at 9:40. I tore out of the train, down the steps, out of the station, threw myself into a cab, and said, “Take me to Magistrates’ Court! Please! As quickly as possible.” I could have said “on the double”, but that seemed over the top for Britain. And I’m sure we could come up with another cinematic film reference here, but none comes to mind at the moment. Suggestions? Some flick with Bogart in it? Or Jimmy Stewart?

The taxi driver gave me a look.... and off we went. For about 1/4 of a mile. Gave him the fare (£3.50, all the change in my purse), ran up to the door of the courthouse, yanked it open. (Pant pant pant. Good thing I’ve been training at high altitudes. I’m much quicker than I used to be!) The clock in the lobby read 9:44 am. Whew! Made it! What a sense of accomplishment! Beat the deadline by ONE MINUTE. I was flooded with pleasure. Something had gone right. At least I could be PUNCTUAL. Perhaps my only remaining good quality?


Reigate. Where in the heck was Reigate? Somewhere in Surrey, I figured.

“Ummmm, Reigate?” I asked. The same kind policeman printed out the train schedules to Reigate/Redhill for me. (Oh look! It’s almost to Gatwick. Oh goody. And here I was trying to think of something interesting to do tomorrow!)

The taxi took me back to Ascot, where Aphrodite let me into the house at about 4:15 am. She said, “You know, it occurred to me tonight, I’ve NEVER gotten a good night’s sleep before a standardized test.”

“I’m sorry, dolly. Let’s go to sleep.”

I slept until 6 am. All of about 2 hours.

And then I called Mr D.

“Good morning!” he said. “How are you?” (Crazy upbeat morning person! But he’s MY crazy upbeat morning person...)

“Not so good. I...(choke back tears here) ... got arrested for drink/drive last night.”

“Oh noooooo! I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you ok?”

“I am SO SO SO DUMB!!!! So stupid!!

And then, do you know what he said?

“Hey, no one was killed, everyone’s all right. Don’t be too hard on yourself, okay? Everybody makes mistakes. You’re only human, in case you forgot.”

That’s why I love this guy. Just what I needed to hear. I’m not sure yet that I can forgive myself, but he has.

Amazing. Amazing grace.

Jailhouse blues

“We’re just going to pop you in a jail cell for a little bit, until your paperwork is processed,” said the lady cop. “Sorry about this.”

Golly, they were all so apologetic and nice. “You mean you were just here for the weekend? And friends just gave you a little ‘do’? How.... how very VERY unlucky!”

Yes, that’s it... how unlucky. Or how incredibly, mind-blowingly stupid!

So, down the hall, turn the corner, and here’s your cell. Enjoy.

It wasn’t half bad really. About 15 x 15 feet, with a built in bunk bed with a gymnasium type foam mattress pad on it, waterproof and vomitproof, by the looks of it. Didn’t feel any temptation to lie down though. A toilet without a seat. No problem there, I wasn’t using THAT. A button to flush the toilet with, and a button to call for help. And a sliding door in the center of the cell door, which, surprise, you couldn’t slide open from inside. Oh well. I guess that’s where the tin plate and tin cup come through if you’re going to be boarding for a while.

And absolutely no obvious place to tie my shoelaces to, for hanging myself. I was surprised they let me keep my shoelaces, in fact, because they were awfully long and dangerous. But unless you’d tied the laces around your neck and then bashed yourself unconscious against the porcelain toilet bowl and drowned, there really wasn’t much in it. I decided to stand there until I was released.

After about an hour, the guy in the next cell was getting on my nerves just a little bit. He spent all his time screaming, and pounding on the cell door with his feet. Constantly.

“Let me the f------g bl------dy h----- OUT OF HERE! I mean it! Let me out! You b------ds!”

On and on and on. Pound pound pound pound pound. Pound-POUND. Pound-POUND. Pound-POUND! POUND POUND POUND POUND POUND!

He could take up African drumming if he ever gets out, he’s really got potential.

After another half hour or so, I decided that maybe I would sing, partly to calm him down, and partly since the acoustics in this cell were clearly just SO excellent. Maybe some... yes, some jailhouse blues.... that would be GREAT! But of course, since I am lyrically challenged, I can never remember more than one-half a stanza of any song (except for the Star Spangled Banner, which seemed inappropriate). So I gave it up as a total loss, and kept quiet. Which was fortunate probably, or they might have booked me again, for singing off-key, or for acting like a weirdo.

After another half hour, I was starting to wonder if they’d forgotten me. I tentatively poked the buzzer button. Five minutes later, the kindly officer came along and opened the small sliding door. “Yes, Madam. Are you all right?”

“Oh, I was just wondering how much longer it might be. I really need to get my daughter to her exams in the morning.”

“Sorry it’s taking so long, Madam. It should be soon. And I’m really awfully sorry about that ridiculous idjit in the next cell. Would you like to move to a quieter cell on the other side?”

Yes, that’s it, I would, and I’d like a room with a balcony and a river view and ... oh never mind.

“No thank you, Officer. This is fine.”

“And Madam, would you like a blanket?” Awww, so sweet. I declined.

Now the guy next door had calmed down, but had begun vomiting. And since he didn’t seem to be able to do ANYthing quietly and discreetly, it was exactly as you’d imagine. I think he finally threw up his toenails AND his gizzard and then collapsed, because at the very last, it got quiet. Bummer of a job to be on the janitorial staff at the jail house. Remind me not to apply. I know I was complaining before, about not having a job, but.....

Finally, the door opened, and they escorted me out to the front desk, where my personal belongings were returned. They had already called a taxi for me (what lovely people!) and after I signed off about 50 pages of forms, I was free to leave.

“Your taxi is waiting for you, Madam.” Why, how civilized! Now, why hadn’t I thought of a taxi four hours ago, in Bracknell? Dumb bunny!

“Since you’re leaving the country on Monday evening, going to Johannesburg, you’ll need to go to court tomorrow, Saturday, in Reigate. Be there at 9:45 am. Good night, Madam.”

35 mcg/100 ml

So, we sat in the police car, and they gave me lots more instructions, explanations, and a summary of what I’d been up to (driving 35 mph in a 60 mph zone.) A guy friend of mine said, “Gosh, E, that’s just plain embarrassing. Too SLOW? You might think of changing that when your book gets published....!” Mmmm, yup. Thanks, Mike! Any and all assistance eagerly accepted at this point!

The officers were so polite. It even felt like they were going to Woking Police Station via the long way, maybe giving me a little more time to bring my blood alcohol level down? Somehow I knew it wasn’t going to be enough time, in the end.

We drove up to the Woking police yard, got out, went into the waiting area. It was a cement block room with wooden benches around the perimeter of the room. A whole bunch of arrested persons, and their police escorts, ranged around the space. Waiting for Godot, in Woking.

“Could be a while, Madam. Would you like to sit down?”

“No thank you, I’m fine, sir.” Might as well start doing my penance early. “But I AM parched... could I please have a glass of water?”

“No, I’m sorry, Madam. You won’t be able to have anything to eat or drink until after your tests.” Right. That plan, to dilute my blood alcohol level, was out the window.

We stood there for 20 minutes, which I was thankful for -- more time passing. Finally, ushered in to the inner sanctum. More explanations, papers to sign, a thousand questions. They took my money, phone and ID, and put them in a sealed plastic bag.

And took my two necklaces. The woman officer said, “In case you want to, you know, ....” And she made a cross-eyed “hanged” face, yanking up an imaginary noose. Nawwww, I don’t think I’m going to be bothering to hang myself today. Too much trouble, besides, I have to get Aphrodite to her exam tomorrow morning. Carpool duty always takes first priority! Kill yourself later, if you still want to, AND if you still have the time, before the afternoon school run.)

Then, “Do you want us to call you a solicitor? Do you understand the charges? Would you like us to call someone else for you?” Hmmm, that last is a tough one. Which of my close friends do I want to wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning with this dumb news? No, I’ll pass.

“No. Yes. No.” Actually, I should have had them call a solicitor, because as it works out, you can only scare up a solicitor on the weekend WHILE YOU’RE IN CUSTODY, UNDER ARREST. I thought I’d deal with a lawyer later, or maybe even not, since I was pretty clearly guilty. But it would have been wiser to call in the duty solicitor. Because it’s too easy to continue to make even more stupid mistakes while in custody. Fortunately I was “calm, quiet, and cooperative” according to my police record. Just like always. (DON’T object, now, ANY of you!!!)

Then, into the interview room. You’re videotaped, and audio-taped as well. Two tapes in a sealed package go into the dual tape drive. It’s just like Prime Suspect. Great. I’m acting in my own stupid story. Blinkin’ American Idjit. Why couldn’t I have had Helen Mirren’s role instead? DCI Jane Tennant? Drat and phooey.

Finally, the breath test. Actually two. You get two tries. They count the lower reading. If you’re under 35 micrograms of alcohol/100 ml of breath, you go free. If you’re between 35 and 50, you move on to phase 2, where you can request a blood test. If you’re over 50, it’s no contest -- we’ll see you in court, man. My low test reading was 48/100. (The other was 50). Not brilliant. Not escapable either. No way a blood test was going to change things, so I declined it. (Ordinarily, it would be wise to take that option, because it takes 6-8 weeks to process your blood sample... and that’s 6-8 weeks you get to keep your license, before you lose it for a year. However, I was flying back to Jo’burg on Monday night, and didn’t want to have to fly back again in 6 weeks just to go to court and accomplish the inevitable.)

So, failed the test. Twice. Now I was going to NOT pass go, and ... YES, go to jail.

But first, fingerprinted with a cool high-tech fingerprint reader. Much cooler than getting prints done with the ol’ ink pad, as I did just two months ago in Bracknell for my criminal background check. (That was for my upcoming South African visa application. Fortunate timing, really, that I did that before this arrest. Gadfry.)

Next, DNA sample from inside your cheeks .... brush brush brush... now your genetic makeup is on file in the national database. Oh, and now, help yourself to all the water you’d care to drink from the water cooler over there...... Gosh, thanks, Officer.


It’s dark, it’s after midnight, and I’m driving along the A30 with Aphrodite in the passenger’s seat. We’re laughing and talking, and reliving the wonderful evening we’ve just had, enjoying dinner over at a friend’s house. I look in the rear view mirror, and suddenly I see flashing blue lights. Oh oh!! Some emergency somewhere? Probably. I’d better get out of the way. I slow down. The lights behind me slow too, and I learn that the “emergency” is .... me.....

Gosh, am I asleep? Having those high altitude nightmares again, in Johannesburg?

“Schadenfreude”-- You know the word, don’t you? It’s from the German. It’s a compound word made up of “schaden” (damage) and “freude” (joy). It’s the perverse pleasure we feel inside when others -- our friends or our enemies -- encounter misfortune. We allow ourselves just a small “hmmph” of amusement, or a smile hidden behind the hand as we hear bad news, or a self-satisfied “I told her this would happen” with sad shakes of our heads. It’s subtle, because of course you’re not really supposed to enjoy it when others are unlucky.

Well, here’s your opportunity to immerse yourself in that forbidden but ever-so-delicious feeling. Let me tell you my wretched little tale.

Oct 5-10, Parents’ Weekend. I flew up from Jo’burg on Wednesday, and arrived Thursday morning, ransacked bags and all. Rushed over to the tennis club to see friends, freshen up, and play ball, and had a lovely, lovely day. Met up with my darling daughter Aphrodite afterwards, and then we were off to stay overnight with our friends Sooz and Don and Grant, to enjoy Ascot hospitality at its best. On Friday, Aphr and I knocked around at her school, then went over to Royal Berkshire Racquets again, for more play and fun, until finally, out to dinner that evening with friends in Bracknell.

And WHAT a lovely evening it was! The BEST! We looked at pictures from South Africa, we ate a delicious dinner prepared by our marvelous hostess, we drank champagne. And more champagne. It was REALLY nice champagne. (Actually, Aphrie, being underage AND an honorable girl, didn’t have any. She’s so responsible. Which proved to be an excellent decision on her part, for many reasons....)

Finally, midnight. Time to head back. A and I hopped into the car, and zoomed off toward home. Down the A322, onto the A30, almost to the Windmill Pub (our turnoff), when.... oh dear, those flashing blue lights. Damn!

“Mom, stop! Stop! Pull over!”

“Yes, yes, I am, I am, just a second.”

I pulled over. The policeman came up to the window and said, “Madam, could you move your vehicle a little bit forward, so you won’t be blocking traffic?” Oh dear. Great. Not a good start.

Sure, sure. I pulled forward.

“Madam, would you step out of the car?” (I notice no one calls me “Miss” anymore. Take a note. Old enough to know better, yeah?)

I stepped out of the car.

“Madam, we noticed you were weaving a little bit and driving a bit slowly. Would you mind taking a breath test?”

“Ummm, no, certainly I don’t. Mind, I mean. No problem.” (Ah, yeah, this is a BIG problem....)

They unwrapped the little tube, gave me the instructions, and I blew. I don’t know what I was hoping for, but my wish wasn’t granted.

“Madam, your breath test is positive, over the limit, for alcohol. Tell us, have you been drinking this evening?”

“Ummm, yes, some champagne.....”

“Madam, we’re going to have to take you in to the police station for an additional breath test. Where are you staying? Can your daughter drive the car home?”

“No, no, she doesn’t have her license yet. But we’re staying with friends just around the corner. Maybe you could take her there and leave her? She has an exam tomorrow morning... she really needs some sleep.” (Yeah, I bet she’s gonna sleep REALLY well tonight.)

So one police officer drove the Honda home to Sooz and Don’s, and I handed Aphrodite the keys and my laptop and everything else. As I prepared to hop back in the police cruiser, one officer said, “Madam, do you really need your whole handbag? It would be better if you just brought some ID, your phone, and some money for a cab home. Otherwise they’ll have to inventory all the contents of your handbag.”

Well, my God, that would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it? I would still be in prison right now, with all the crap I drag around in my purse! (“....seventeen pens..... six lipsticks and one lip gloss..... 4 packages of gum, all opened..... two mirrors..... one hair comb.... hey, mate, get me another piece of paper, wouldja, she’s got all of Boots in here! We’re gonna be here all night! I’m gonna miss my tea break.”)

“Thanks Officer, point taken.” I handed my purse to A. “Sorry, sweetheart. And good luck. Hopefully I’ll be home soonish.”

Ripped off

Last Wednesday, I dropped the car off at the company, and grabbed a corporate cab to the airport. I checked in, which took ages. And while I was in line, noticed many people had had their suitcases “wrapped”, where they’re covered with cling wrap to seal them up.

I was looking at this, thinking, “How paranoid.” I never even lock my suitcases. In fact apparently you can’t anymore in the US. And it’s not like I have anything valuable or even particularly attractive, for crying out loud, in my bags. “Ah well, takes all kinds....”

Landed to cold damp weather in London, got through a very organized immigration process (nice queues!), picked up my baggage and.... you guessed it.... ROBBED. And what exactly was I robbed of?

Biltong. It’s like jerky, but much better, and it’s often made from not beef, but springbok or kudu... or from half the animals we’d seen last weekend! I’d brought three packages for a South African friend of mine. One package was completely eaten (they left a tiny morsel in the bottom of the empty bag), one package was ripped open and scattered all over the inside of my suitcase (maybe they didn’t like springbok droewors?), and one package was intact (ostrich biltong). The rest of the suitcase was completely ransacked.

And what else was stolen? My tennis shoes. My indoor tennis shoes. Ohhhh, boy.

You know, I was pretty irritated. Vowed to learn something, like you do every day in Africa (or in any new place for that matter). Locks are necessary. And so I bought some, right there in Heathrow.

But I thought about something else. What was stolen? Food. Shoes. Someone was hungry. Someone was barefoot.

My shoes are probably walking along the side of a road in South Africa right now.

Thanks, maybe I'll walk

Just in general, you need to pay attention all the time while driving. If it’s not someone coming up to wash your window at the red light, it’s a full “taxi” (large people carrier) with 14 people in it, making a wide right hand turn in parallel with you, and trying to overtake you at the same time.

The taxis are death on wheels. You can tell from looking at them that the driving is not so hot. Most of them look like someone’s taken a sledgehammer to them... all over. Dings, bumps, dents, broken taillights, dangling mirrors. They stop at the side of the road to pick people up, pulling off onto the shoulder, and then they suddenly pull out directly in front of you with no signal, no warning, just “vroom, gotta go!”

They are actually the informal mass transit system for blacks in South Africa. I haven’t seen a white person riding in one yet, though I’m sure it happens. Occasionally.

In order to give yourself more warning about erratic starts and stops by taxis, you begin to look for people at the side of the road, waiting. Someone will be standing there, and then they hold up a hand, formed into a specific signal, which means, “Pick me up if you are going.... (choose one: locally, to town, over thataway, whatever)” The taxi will stop for the passenger if it’s going the same way the person has signaled, if not, it flies on by.

When we were driving back from the game lodge in our (undented) people carrier, numerous potential passengers signaled to us from the side of the road. Going my way?... Ummm, not really.

The big joke was that a few weeks ago the government was trying to encourage participation in an energy conservation day, so they published photos in all the big papers with [white] people making all the various hand signals. A photo-lexicon, as it were. But I didn't see any terrified white faces in taxis on the actual day. Asked a few friends -- "did you take a taxi on the day?"

"No ways!"

All the white people, however, are in their cars. White cars, silver cars, shiny, shiny new cars. South Africans are so very proud of their automobiles. It’s a big status thing. Everyone seems to be driving the latest model, cruising along in their flash wheels. Cars are washed and spiff, and you never see any rust or anything that looks like it needs work.

Well, except for me and my Mazda Etude.

And regarding that, wonderful Mr. D arranged for the car to get its clutch looked at while I was off to London. What a guy! He IS so very thoughtful, really.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Wag vir groen

A four hour drive back to Jo’burg (with no wrong turns! Hurrah!) But as we approached Jo’burg, we saw traffic slowed up ahead.

Closer, and we came across a horrific traffic accident. A pickup had run a stop sign, and crashed into a small 4-door sedan. The pickup was on its back, the sedan was completely crushed, and there were injured people lying all over the gravel shoulder of the road. Ambulances, police cars, people driving up in other cars to help, IV drips being held aloft -- what a nightmare.

The really extra bad thing about this is, the pickup truck was probably filled with a whole bunch of workers, heading toward some job somewhere. Everywhere you drive, you see pickups absolutely loaded down with people, up to 10 at a time, perched on the edges, hanging onto garden equipment in the pickup’s bed. It always looks like someone is going to fall out. Just terrifying.

But the car crashes! It’s happening all the time here. People are just terrible, terrible drivers. There’s a sign on almost every stoplight pole that says, “Wait for green. Wag vir groen.” And “Stop On Amber. It Could Save Your Life.”

But people don’t. They jump the green, they’re into the intersection before cross traffic has stopped, and then they keep going after the light’s turned to amber, and now red. A South African friend of mine said once, “You’re good to wait, to check for cross traffic.” Because two different friends of his had been killed in side-on collisions. One was a friend who was driving in Pretoria. The lights changed, she went out into the intersection, and ... SMASH. The other person was, I think, another close friend of his... and he was in the car with her at the time. Somehow I can’t even imagine that.

Another tale along those lines. A few weeks ago we went to a fundraiser for the school, St. Stithian’s, and they put on a fantastic fashion show. A truly amazing, professional production, with former Miss South Africas modeling, and multimedia backdrops, and professional dancers. It was a marvelous success. Among the various scenes, they had some “gum-boot” dancers from Refilwe/Lanseria (township). They do the most astonishing dancing, like hip-hop, but even wilder and more energetic. Their performing was one of the highlights of the evening. That was Saturday night.

On Monday morning, I picked up the paper and read that the taxi carrying this same dancing group had overturned, with multiple injuries, several people in critical condition, and one death. The van had been overloaded, carrying... seventeen people. So at least one of the people dancing on stage on Saturday night was dead by Monday morning.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

But they be just lyin' around!

Finally, it was our last day at Tau Lodge. But we still hadn’t seen any lion. Jim and Dylan were determined to make it happen. So, dawn broke on our third morning at the lodge.

I made Mr. D get out of bed first, to do the snake check.

Well. I didn’t really tell him he was doing the snake check. I just figured if there was anything under the bed, he would draw the attack and then I could, ummm, run for help, I guess. (Or walk.) Works for everyone, really. He gets to feel morally superior for being a morning person and bounding out of bed like a crazy loon every day, and I get my own personal early warning system for snake. I could have asked him to check my shoes for scorpions too, but that seemed excessive, and besides, it might have clued him in. Better to keep him in the dark for now. He CAN be quite useful.

Another lovely sunrise with coffee on the verandah, and into the Landies for the lion hunt. Today, our driver was Dylan, an experienced ranger who’d been with Tau Lodge for more than three years. If anyone could find “tau”, it would be Dylan.

Up one road, down another. We spotted masses of animals: elephant, jackal, gnu, kudu, oryx, impala, rhino, giraffe, bear (no, NOT bear, you goose!!), monkeys (which by the way were climbing over the extremely electrified border fence. They’re the only animal undeterred by electric fencing). And we saw aardvark holes, and termite mounds, and prickly thorny bushes, and... no lion.

After about two very enjoyable hours of this, we were beginning to think that maybe it just wasn’t going to be. Still, it would give us something to look forward to on the next trip to a game park. Suddenly, the radio crackled again.

“bbbzzz, crackle, crack.... Tau!”

Another ranger said that two young lions had been spotted ambling along, very near the electric fences that we’d been going past. About 6 km ago! Ai yi! Dylan turned the Land Rover around (these guys can do amazing things with a gear box) and we turned back.

Dylan drove at about 50-60 kph, along these two-rut lanes, avoiding holes and washouts, thorn bushes and low hanging branches, doing quick zigzags and missing rocks and... gosh it was harrowing. (This is the test they DON’T give you when you get your British driving licence/license! Thank goodness. Though driving around Aldershot is daunting in its own way.) My insides were beginning to feel completely scrambled and I think my kidneys and some other internal organs had swapped places.

And then, we slowed to a stop, and Dylan went completely off road, creeping along through the bush (IN the Land Rover, of course). He was driving very slowly now, approaching the place where the lions were resting. Two other land rovers were parked there; now we saw them. Dylan inched forward, avoiding tree stumps, simply driving over and crushing other thorn bushes flat under the vehicle. And there they were.

Two young male lions, utterly sacked out under a tree, lying in some dry grass.

Wow. Big kitties! They were a lovely smooth, tawny gold, and if you hadn’t known they were there, you would have missed them. They blended in so beautifully, in the sere golden grass. We sat there for a while, looking at them. Dylan told us that they ignore the Land Rovers, even as close as we were (about 15 meters).

BUT... if you get out of the car.... consider your life over.

As we watched, both lions simultaneously lifted their heads... and sniffed. Now they were alert, smelling deeply, sitting in that “cat pounce” position, low to the ground, haunches twitching. “They probably smell an impala or a wildebeest nearby,” said Dylan. “They’re opportunistic hunters, so if something edible runs by, they’ll kill it, even if they’ve just eaten. Because they never know when they’ll be eating again next.”

We all sat there, spellbound, hoping it wasn’t us the lions were smelling. And then, they started to relax, and they relaxed a bit more, and then, whoomph, rolled over and dropped right off back to sleep!

We backed out of our viewing position, and headed back to the lodge for another fantastic breakfast, many hugs and goodbyes, and began our return trip to Jo’burg. But what an experience! We’d seen so many animals, and most of the big ones. We’d leave the water buffalo for next time... the last of the “Big Five”.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005

A wee break

We whiled away most of the afternoon watching the show, with zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, and heaps of other creatures making guest appearances. Then, time to dress for the drive and dinner, in dungarees and warm jackets... no stiletto heels allowed.

We cruised around the southern end of the park for this drive, looking for lion. Although we didn’t come across any, we did see a bit of everything else -- the rhinos again, gnu, klipspringer (a tiny little mountain goat bounding around on some rocks), a vulture ...and, yes, a dead giraffe, or what was left of him. Long legs blackened from the sun, chest cavity ripped open and empty, and... oh, stop, wait, it’s almost dinner time. Let’s not spoil our appetites!

We stopped for sundowners (cocktails at sunset) and a pee break for some of the ladies.

WHAT a production! Trying to find a bush big enough to hide behind, but not too far away (don’t want to get eaten by a lion). And of course it’s still early spring here, so no leaves to speak of on any of the bushes. VERY difficult camouflage problem. It was all a source of great hilarity. And as it turned out, Carol HAD worn stiletto heels (she’s a gorgeous creature, but simply can’t “dress down”) so she had a bit of difficulty getting a firm footing out there in the sandy soil. Oops. Fell over. Then Karine got grass down her trousers, and someone else wee’d on her pants. Generally speaking, it’s a good thing we girls don’t spend too much time in the bush! Big shortage of port-o-potties.

Suddenly, it was growing completely dark, so Jim got out his spotlight. He cast it around left, right and center, looking for... eyes. Animal eyes reflect the light back at you, and they really glow out of the pitch black. You are simply amazed at how much wildlife is out there in the dark, looking at you.

We saw darling “bush babies”, which are tiny little monkeys the size of your fist. They jump around in the bushes, and can leap 9 meters! Jim told us that you can catch one if you leave a sock hanging in the bush overnight. The next morning, you’ll find a bush baby sleeping in it. (I think this is where all those socks go when they disappear from the washing machine at home. Commandeered by monkeys.) With all this leaping about in the bush, the bush babies need to have very sticky grips. They accomplish this by urinating on their hands (probably just like the ladies did at the pee break!?!) so they can get a better hold on the branches.

And then, off to dinner -- a bush braai, another dinner out of doors, under the stars. All the tables were set up again, with torches flickering all about, candles on tables with white tablecloths, and a divine buffet. We washed our hands (thank goodness, girlfriends!) and sat down to enjoy a marvelous dinner with all our bush buddies.

Speaking of bush buddies, one of the acquaintances we didn’t want to run into again was... a cobra. Just as we drove up to the braai, Jim shone his red spotlight down at the ground, and there was a snake slithering along in the dust. It was a spitting cobra, sliding across the road.

I never thought I was particularly afraid of snakes... but I think that’s because I’d hardly ever seen one. Certainly not in the wild. I mean, all you have to do is never EVER go into the herpetology building at the zoo, and there, you’ve saved yourself a lot of terror! I was rather concerned, as this cobra looked like it might be headed back toward the lodge. My cottage, maybe. Hopefully not for the tree above my shower.... euhhhhhh.

And finally, back to the thatched cottage, and the lovely bed with the mosquito netting. Another wonderful night’s sleep. Though I did wake up once, thirsty for a glass of water. But honestly, I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. Thinking about that cobra. Lurking. Under the bed? sssssss pssssssss ....shiverrrrrrrrrr.

It's 5 o'clock somewhere

I eventually gave up tanning and reading, and moved over to the veranda overlooking the watering hole, because the action was starting to heat up. A herd of impala came down to drink.

Then the baboons came running over. Heaps of them. Big, little, tiny babies. All scampering across the bare ground toward water. One group of really little ones pelted along, then suddenly sat down together in a little circle, like, “Ok, what trouble can we get into next?” After a bit, they moved into the shade of a few large trees, and rested for the better part of the afternoon. Baboons can also climb up into trees and hang out. They look almost like vultures, or even more like (shudder) the flying monkeys of “The Wizard of Oz”.

But the herds of elephant, now that was something to see. I reckon we saw 150 ele during the afternoon. A group of 30 or so, bulls, moms, and babies, would wander on in to the waterhole to drink, bathe, and play about in the water. After about 20 minutes, this group would move on, and the next family of 25-30 would come forward. Each family of ele would take its own turn at the water, while the next up waited out in the bush, at a distance. Kind of like a really long queue at a really massive car wash.

At one point, a family of ele were approaching and the main guy, a big bull, sensed danger, so he trumpeted. Suddenly the elephants stamped and bustled their way into a circle, trunks all pointing outward, with the babies now completely hidden in the middle of this huddle. They squirmed and flailed their trunks, and stamped and jostled, and then... the danger was over and they all relaxed and came down to the water. One baby slipped and fell in at the deep end of the hole, and several other big ones came over and gently nudged it back out and up on the bank.... such sweetness....

The only thing I really didn’t like about the elephant was how they would come up in the conversation on the veranda all the time.... “Look at that MASSIVE ellie!” “Wow, that ellie is HUGE!” “My word, another MONSTROUS ellie...” I was starting to get a complex, fer cryin out loud. I mean, after all that weight loss AND the time I spend at the gym! Hmmph! You just can’t do enough for some people!!!!

Naked, or wearing funny hats

And as regards the freshening up part, all the cottages have outdoor showers. You go through the bath, and then outside again, into a little shower enclosure. There’s a tree overhead to provide some dappled shade, and there you are, having a fantastic hot hot hot shower out of doors. The sunlight is making a beautiful and brilliant circular rainbow, the wind is playing in the leaves above, and suddenly you’re back cavorting naked in the sprinkler in the garden, age four, all over again. Simply.... a “plih-zhah”.

Later, after having thoroughly enjoyed this, our friends told us that on a previous visit, a guy had been showering and a SNAKE dropped out of the tree onto him. Gad! He probably needed ANOTHER shower after that. Boy. I can just imagine the girly screams you’d hear across the veldt!

The afternoon looked like it could be stressful. Not! Changed into a swimsuit (bathing cozzie) and lay down by the swimming pool in the sun. Slathered on sun cream, put on the sunglasses, got out the book (“The B-----d on the Couch” -- highly recommended collection of essays by guys on being guys. Very enlightening.. and who knew they could even think, after all, much less write?!?)

Anyway, by the time I got all set up, and the waitstaff came by with drinks orders (is it 5pm yet? ... hmmm, yeah, maybe in India... oh all right then, twist my arm....) I realized that SPF15 or not, I was going to fry to a crisp in the African sun. So I slipped over onto a sunbed in the shade after all. Why get melanoma the very first month you’re in Africa?

The very wonderful thing about the pool area was that it also overlooked the watering hole. I heard a huge snort nearby (has Mr. D fallen asleep on his sunbed again?)... no, it was the hippo, surfacing from the depths of the reedy pool. This hippo came up for air and paddled around, slowly, here and there. The third time it surfaced, it had a huge heap of water grass on its head, which it proceeded to wear as a headdress for the rest of the day. (You know all those children’s books, where Harriet the Hippo pops on her hat and goes off to the market? Well, it really looked like that!) In fact, hippos, like humans, can get very dry skin, so this is the beauty treatment they adopt to avoid cracked and peeling skin.

Hippos, in spite of their friendly, roly-poly appearance, are extremely dangerous. In Africa, they cause more human deaths than any other animal. Easily angered and very territorial, they attack unpredictably and fiercely. There are loads of photos of boats simply bitten in two. And of course, because humans and hippos frequent the same places (river banks, watering holes) they cross paths too frequently, with unfortunate results ... for humans.

This hippo might have been happier had he had some friends to play with, and it’s not like the lodge owner hadn’t tried. Earlier in the year, Robert had purchased and imported into the park two more hippo, with the hope of starting a small family herd. Unfortunately, the two must not have liked their new digs, so they took their grass hats, wandered off to the river, and swam off to ... well, nobody knows. Now there’s a unfortunate loss... to the tune of about £150,000!

The Birds Part II

Back to our wilderness adventures with animals and our amazing double-jointed “guide mammal”, Jim. It was a fabulous birding morning, and I’m not that big on birds, after my experiences with the horrifying hardedar birds. But this was utterly different.

We saw lots of luries, which are gray birds with a clownish crest atop the head. They are also known as the “go away” bird, as their call sounds like someone saying.... ok, you tell me here, what’s your best guess? Yes, it’s “GO AWAY”. They are the early warning signal in the bush. When they detect a threat, they start calling and calling, and all the other animals around know to look up and pay attention.

We also saw tiny blue waxbills. These are quick in flight, and look like a little flash of pale turquoise -- the prettiest blue I’ve ever seen. They dart from here to there, lovely aqua brushstrokes against the brownish grey veldt.

Another interesting bird was notable for its nests. A single tree stood out alone, by a small watering hole, and in the pinkish orange sunrise, you could see big balls of nest material hanging from the branches (looking like mistletoe, in England.) These were the nests of the red billed buffalo weaver. The male builds a huge nest, with about 14 rooms, and then populates it with a harem of females. That would be the male “dream situation”.

However, to balance it out, there’s also the male “nightmare situation” -- and that’s the story for the poor yellow masked weaver bird. The gorgeous but browbeaten fellow builds a nest all by himself (the nest hangs from a branch, a small and gracious bower in the treetops). Then the female comes to check it out. If she likes it, she goes inside and lays her eggs. If she doesn’t like it, she rips it to shreds and he has to begin again. Ladies, here’s a model we could live with. You don’t like your house, you burn it down! There! Now, get me a new one!

No, too extreme.

Our rangers were also locked in a fierce competition around birds. There are almost 1000 species of bird native to South Africa (about 978?) and Jim was beating his supervisor, Dylan, in the contest. Jim was up to 485 at last count. Dylan gently accused him of making up some sightings, but you have to admire the single-mindedness of anyone willing to count up to 485 of anything. Not me. I have problems just with 52 cards in a deck, which is why I don’t play bridge. Or even the four kids in our family (once I lost two kids at once, in the Baltimore Aquarium. Believe me, those squirrelly little rascals were really hard to spot!)

Then we saw so many other animals. All kinds of game. There were steenbok and impala, both such small, delicate and graceful African antelope. Red haartebeest, so called because they are red (you saw that coming, didn’t you?), and their horns form a heart-shape in silhouette, We saw oryx (or gemsbok), which have meter-long straight horns that twist to dangerous looking points.

There were kudu, another animal that looks like a deer fitted with simply gigantic ears. And we saw rhino again, more zebra and giraffe, some ostrich, and another massive bull elephant that was quite honestly much too close for comfort. We stopped the Land Rover, and he started moseying over.... hmmm, time to move on.

One of the biggest lessons I learned on this morning’s game drive was, “Bring tissues!” Or better yet, a handkerchief. You’re tearing along in the Landie with the wind blowing in your face, dust flying everywhere, the sun shining in your eyes, nose running, eyes streaming. Such an attractive picture. But everyone in the vehicle is snuffling and sneezing and blowing noses. It sounds like the waiting room at the Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. This is why I was dubious about the out of doors. But you do get a nice tan.

We returned to the lodge via the watering hole, where we saw herons, a red-breasted cormorant, and a hippo wallowing in the mud. Once at the lodge, it was back to our cottages to shower and freshen up, and then to the veranda for a wonderful breakfast. If a “full English” is good, a “full African” is even better, especially after all that fresh air.

Eat my dust

I’m waiting in the Jo’burg airport, relaxing before my upcoming flight to London tonight, having survived the most hectic and fraught check-in, security, and immigration process. It is never easy here. Somehow the simplest things, like forming a queue, are just unimaginable to the masses of people shoving around. Makes you appreciate orderly Britain.

Let’s continue with the game park and our wonderful excursion there last weekend. After our lovely dinner under the stars on Friday evening, we were awake at dawn the next morning, having coffee and rusks on the veranda overlooking the watering hole. What is a rusk, you ask? Actually, in this case, it was a rather tasty muffin, but ordinarily rusks are those strange melba toast things that your aunt used to try to force on you.

“Oh, but Elinor Ann, they’re so delicious!”

“No thank you, Auntie. They taste like dust to me.”

And of course my mom chimes in with, “Since when have you been eating DUST?”

And she’s the one who told me, “You hafta eat a peck of dirt before you die.” It was supposed to be reassuring, meaning that germs are not such a big problem, because you’re ingesting them all the time. But the five-year-old in me was imagining someone sitting down out in the garden with a big basket of dirt, eating it, and then, naturally, keeling over dead. Such vivid, vibrant imagery. And all so strangely morbid.

Chicago needs mosquito nets

And how about insects? Well, you remember from primary school, the unit you did on Africa? Remember the termite mounds? They’re tall pillars of red dirt standing around in the veldt. Anyway, the termites live underground in enormous colonies, and those pillars are simply the ventilation holes.

Because of brilliant engineering, the termite nests are able to stay a constant 25C all year long. The hot air just rises out of these chimneys. The mounds can be much taller than a person, and because the soil near them is so rich, many have extra trees or bushes growing out of them. It’s so bizarre looking. Almost like coming across Lot’s wife in the desert. Hey, what was her name again? (Trick question, she didn’t have a name! See, I did do my Sunday School homework.)

Another queer kind of insect is the community web spider. They build little nests, about the size of a tennis ball, at the ends of branches. Inside these nests live 20,000 spiders. Talk about “yuk!” They are smaller than a pinhead, too small to bite you, so nothing to worry about there. At least, that’s what Jim said.

And, so I can take a little break (and give you one too) we’ll go from the very, very tiny to the extremely, extremely large -- the elephants. We saw massive families of elephant... 25-30 in a group, wandering through the bush. They are so quiet when grazing, which is astonishing for an animal that size. Just the occasional crack as a tree gets crunched or pushed over. For such a big animal, they can be surprisingly difficult to see. It’s usually the tusks that you focus in on first.

It seemed to be baby season for most animals, so lots of small eles hanging out with mum. They are simply darling. The elephant in Africa are the ones with BIG flapping ears... now I’ll never forget.

And that was just the very first drive.

We actually saw a whole lot more stuff that first evening than I’ve mentioned, but I don’t want to exhaust you immediately. (As if you weren’t tired of reading already; where are we at, episode 8 bazillion by now? Too bad I didn’t put this to more productive use and write a doctoral thesis.)

A friend from Chicago wrote me and said, "E, I can barely keep up... it’s like being on a high-speed Eurostar train, almost out of control!” (almost?) and her husband wrote, “You need a hobby!”, to which I must reply, “I’m afraid this IS my hobby, for now. Enjoy the ride, my pretties.” And that being said, if you’re NOT enjoying the ride, let me know and I’ll take you off the mailing list. I won’t be offended; I KNOW I’m not everyone’s cup of tea!

So, we returned to the lodge after dark, where we had a divine meal out of doors, under the stars, in a big circular area called a boma. It’s a big round protective wall made of vertical branches and grass, open to the sky above. There was a crackling, roaring fire pit in the center, and the tables ranged all around, with candles and white tablecloths and food that was simply too delicious. How civilized! And the stars came out as we sat there, and you could see the Milky Way like I’ve never seen in Chicago. Oh boy, tears. Never mind. It’s just too beautiful.

Finally, off for a good night’s sleep in our own little thatched roof cottage, in a lovely soft bed completely surrounded with mosquito netting. Why do they not DO mosquito netting in Chicago summers? I could really use it, as I’m the bite (or BITTEN) queen. Here, so far, so good, though. I’ve only been bitten by mozzies in the apartment so far.

And no dengue fever or other exotic diseases.


A murder of crows

Even with our two guides, Dylan and William, there were multiple names involved. In fact, tall, blond William was also known as “Jim”. All of us were like, “Jim”? How do you get that out of “William”? He grinned shyly (well, not that shyly) and said, “It’s a nickname the other guys gave me, because all of me is double jointed.”

And then to demonstrate, he flared his fingers out, and all ten of his digits were bending in four different directions at once. Gasp!

a pickup line! The group fell silent for a moment, and you could imagine all the women thinking, “Mmmmm hmmmm ... all of him is double jointed...... wonder what one could do with that?....”

Oh hang on. Back to the animal life. Sorry, kids.

But no, I won’t. Because really, the rangers are quite interesting. (And c’mon, they’re mammals too!!) Every one of them is about 23 or 24 years old. Apparently, it’s a career choice, for a time. Do guiding for a bit, then move on. I think all the old guides just eventually crawl off into the bush to die, like an old bull elephant past its prime.

Anyway, there are numerous lodges in any one park, and each lodge employs its own guides. So these boys are driving around for 3 hours every morning (Jim actually wore driving gloves, poor sweet baby!) and another 3-4 hours every evening, looking for creatures wandering around in the veldt (high grasslands).

And it’s not like the animals are standing around at bus stops or calling in their locations. So the guys are looking for animal tracks and animal poo (we saw a LOT of that!) to give them a clue. When they come across another vehicle, everyone stops and compares notes, with friendly greetings all round. Very sociable, just waiting for the teapot to come out with some biscuits! That “pause that refreshes” actually came to pass later, at sunset, but instead of tea and bikkies it was cocktails and biltong (dried meat, way better than it sounds!)

Next up? Rhino. We saw a little family of white rhino, some grownups and a baby. Sooo cute, munching away in the tall grass! But you wouldn’t want to run over and pet them, as they can be very aggressive. They really do have little birds sitting on their backs, grooming their skins. A bit later we saw black rhino (so named because they were first discovered [by white people] along the Black River in the Natal.) Black rhino and white rhino are actually the same physical color, a light grey. Go figure.

And? What else? Giraffe, lovely animals. They have a 45 cm long tongue, and use it to eat leaves off the prickliest trees I’ve ever seen in my life. As a matter of fact, I think every single bush or tree in the bush has thorns. And a lot of the thorns have some poisonous stuff on them, so they also burn and sting when they poke you.You wouldn’t want to go prancing around naked out there! (As one is wont to do elsewhere, perhaps in a moonlit garden in England..? Mmmm, no, too chilly tonight for you all...)

The giraffe have a lovely coat and apparently they all are patterned just alike, although they can differ in shade (blonds, brunettes, and redheads, I suppose). This is unlike zebra, where each has a unique pattern to its pelt. Zebra stripes are like our fingerprints... every one is different.

The giraffes and zebras are so lovely to look at, and so much fun. They tend to stand amongst particular types of vegetation, and when the Land Rover approaches, they move just a wee little bit into a tree or bush... and they simply disappear. There one second, utterly camouflaged the next. It’s like those hidden pictures in a kid’s magazine. You wouldn’t think something so exotically patterned could become invisible, but it really happens. And do you know what a group of giraffe is called? A “kaleidoscope” of giraffe. Too cool! There’s also a “crash” of rhino, and a “dazzle” of zebra. Someone must have had a blast thinking those up. I had only ever heard of a “murder” of crows.

We saw some catfish (it doesn’t sound especially thrilling, I know) and those babies are big, like everything else in Africa. You could see the water roiling as they churned round and round in a small watering hole. And, if the waterhole dries up, they climb out of the mud and walk off looking for more water! No kidding, they really can move across land! That is one ugly (creepy, really) fish!

Lions and Tigers and ... well, not tigers actually

We arrived at Tau Lodge about 3:30pm, were greeted with hot face cloths and smiles and handshakes all around, and then we tossed our bags into our rooms and hopped onto the Land Rovers. These things are massive vehicles, with seats for a driver and passenger in the front, and then three other bench seats behind, each higher than the last, so that everyone can have a great view. And no seat belts. No roof top. No roll bars. No airbags. Just a gun rack across the front dash (with a .458 rifle parked there at the ready), a radio, and lap blankets for all. (That’s “it” for the safety features!)

We set off as the sun was just starting to sink slightly lower in the west, but the light was still clear and good. Suddenly... “crackle, crackle, bzz, blah blah” -- noise came through on the radio and our guide, William, was all alert... a leopard had been sighted! Already! Ten minutes into the mission, and we’re on the trail!

We rounded a curve, and there high up on a rock, resting, was a huge leopard. They are just amazing animals. Spots (obviously!), great big paws, and an unbelievably muscular physique. He was up there, alternately napping and then pricking up his ears and looking out over the valley, and we all ogled him for a while. They’re quite hard to find, usually, as they hide out a lot because farmers shoot at them. There are only about 20 leopard in this park, which is about 70,000 hectare. (Yes, yes, what IS a hectare? I hear you. Short answer -- it’s a measure of land, and it’s big. I would look it up, but that would deprive you of the pleasure of doing so.)

Then off to search for more game. We next saw warthog, which are ugly beasts that have tusks that curl around in a semi-circle, and bulbous “warts” on either side of the head. They dig for things in the ground, with their piggish snouts. They usually start running away when they see you, and you can sometimes see whole families tearing away in single file. Their long tufted tails, looking like car aerials, stand straight up as they trot quickly away. Boing, boing, boing!

We saw blue wildebeest, or gnu, which are apparently among the stupidest animals in the veldt. When attacked by a predator, they run about 50-100 meters, then stop to look around to check if they’re still being followed. As our guide said, “It’s not a very effective strategy.” No, one wouldn’t think so. They look a bit like American buffalo, in silhouette, as they have a loopy, loping gait when they run. They are a bluish black, and wouldn’t win any beauty contests, let’s leave it at that.

And I know you were curious about why blue wildebeest are also called “gnu”. It’s so that people can ask,......... “What’s gnu?” ... groan... Yeah that was pretty bad. No, apparently the animals all have a South African name (in Afrikaans) (“wildebeest”, for example), and then an “international” name -- that would be “gnu”.

Then to make matters even more confusing, the guides call the animals by an African name in a language I forgot to ask about (turns out it’s Tswana, as in “Botswana”). For example, “tau” is “lion”. We determined about halfway through the weekend that the purpose of this was simply to keep the guests totally confused. I mean, why spoil the surprises? Because of course, the guides are radioing back and forth to each other, to tell where they’ve spotted this or that animal (as the park is big, and it would be easy to miss an animal or three). So they have this groovy secret code to keep us all in the dark.

Man loses way, asks directions

Ok, my mom wrote and said, "Elinor Ann! You need to turn down the emotional content a little! It’s SO worrying! You’re making me SO nervous! I can’t STAND it!!”

Oh great, now SHE can’t sleep either. Oopsie!

That’s my mom. She loves to worry. So yeah, it’s NOT as bad as I make it sound, really. I just like to exaggerate. And take a little artistic license, you know. And I haven’t cried for days and days and days now ( really!) because it’s been fun here. Of course I did read in the paper the other day that crying is actually very GOOD for you. (Damn! Just when I’d given it up.) The two main positive developments are, first, I got my 24/7 internet connection (at last), and second, we spent a fantastic weekend away enjoying the wilds of Africa.

And we made it back! Last weekend we took our second trip to a game park, and oh, what a trip it was. THIS is why people love South Africa!

We left Friday morning. Graham and Belinda picked us up in a massive Mercedes people carrier (can’t call that one a mini-van) and we set off toward the northwest, and Botswana. Can you believe it? Botswana? Get out your geography textbooks.

We didn’t actually cross over the border, but the game park we went to, Madikwe, is right at the very edge of South Africa. You could throw a stone into another country from the fence! (Just like at the England/Wales border, or Indiana/Illinois... I know, I know... we’re all doing exotic things, aren’t we?)

Anyway, we had a lovely ride -- about 4 hours -- stopping for lunch at Wimpy (yes, they have Wimpy in South Africa too... and they’re just as ...”special”!) I had a fish filet, some strange french fries that really did taste like they were boiled in oil (but unfortunately perhaps a petroleum based product), and a brilliant antifreeze-green cream soda. Mmmmm. I probably should have stuck to a Haribo-based lunch instead! Maybe fewer artificial ingredients?

And we made another stop too, because we had to ask for directions. Somehow, Graham (who’s driven this route innumerable times with clients, guests, and so on) missed a turn, and so we stopped at a small store in the middle of nowhere to figure out where he went wrong.

And I had debated about bringing the video camera, but.... I didn’t. What the heck! Man, such a tragedy. I could have filmed one of those exceptionally rare moments -- a man stopping to ask for directions. That would have been even more popular than the Paris Hilton video! Could have made maybe a million bucks. But no. Oh well. As it turned out, he’d only driven us out of the way by about 2 km, but did we let him forget that? No WAY.

Monday, October 3, 2005

Quitting HARIBO the hard way

And speaking of “less”, the good news is, I lost weight over the summer, due to a combination of stress, tennis, pilates, running, and more stress. I’m now down 20lbs (or almost 1.5 stone) from my all-time English high (which was reached about three months after arriving in England). It was all the yummy English cheese that put on the lard in the first place. I guess I decided that with this household move, I’d stop eating due to stress, rather than eating more. Highly recommended programme.

I also kicked my Haribo addiction (they have a great “Quitting Japanese Candy” rehab program at The Priory ... or was it at the Betty Ford Clinic?) “Hi, my name is E, and I’m a Starmix addict”. It was easier than you’d think to give it all up.

But there was some bad news: I almost lost my mind, I compromised my principles in multiple ways, and I think I generally sounded like a raving lunatic for at least 60% of the summer.

......AND I wrote no thank you notes to all you fabulous friends who helped out, gave lovely g’bye parties and gifts, and most of all provided shoulders to cry on (why didn’t I offer to pay for your drycleaning, or at least provide towels???) and even stepped in to help me out when it all seemed simply too horrid.

So now I’ll say it, in this very impersonal but heartfelt way. Thank you for all the continuing support. It means a lot, certainly way more than I’ve expressed to you so far. Keeping in touch is the best gift ever, so please do!

PS, back from the game park in one piece... that’s for the next one...

Less is NOT more; Less is less

So yeah, that was May, June and July. Throw in a few week-long trips: two to Jo’burg, including the ill-fated househunting trip (more on that later), one to Majorca for “business”, and madness begins to set in.

By mid-July, I was starting to lose my grip a little. Not so you’d notice, really. (Don’t say anyyyything, Miss T!) But I started playing even more tennis, often just hitting balls with a girlfriend of mine. Ronalee was moving over the summer too, and both of us just needed to wear ourselves out so we could sleep at night. So three or four hours a day of exercise... would that do it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. And then I still needed to fit in all the stupid and exasperating chores like getting estimates from moving companies, getting pages added to my passport, arranging for carpet cleaning and online banking and selling a car and .. and ... and... the list was endless and unrewarding.

And then, at last, it was August. We thought we’d found a house to rent in Jo’burg -- just the details of the lease needed to be finalized. Now, it was time to pack up our house in Ascot. The removals company showed up Monday, August 8th, worked all week,and by Friday the 12th, I was sitting all alone in a completely empty house. Once more. Not even a tissue around to blow my nose in. (Crying again? Oh, come, come now... stiff upper lip, girl!)

Phew. Another chapter finished. The household goods would go off by sea and we’d meet up with them in late September, when we’d unload everything into the South African house. What a great plan!

But of course, this is MY life you’re reading about, so did it go to plan? Again, are you JOKING? We flew off to the United States, to see friends and family, and when I opened my emails in Portland Oregon on Tuesday the 16th, I read that the lease agreement for the Jo’burg house had fallen through, and it was all off.

Well, didn’t that just take the cake?!?! Because if I’d known I wouldn’t have any of my “stuff” for three months, I certainly would have packed differently. Too late now. Surprise, you’re screwed!! Ah well, one can certainly get along with less. Less is more, right?

Boys, boys, boys!

But why this craving for solitude, when I was just moaning about needing friends not two seconds ago? Well, it’s probably a result of the summer I had. What a summer! The last summer in England, and oh-so-memorable.

It started out, mid-May, looking like it was going to be not too bad. Then Tarquin arrived home from university, returning to our cozy little nest in England, sick with mononucleosis (British translation: glandular fever). So we had Tarquin basically falling asleep all over the house.

I told him he needed to sleep upstairs, in his bedroom.... “Right, Mom, I’ll just go up in a min...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.” Hopeless. To make matters worse, he snores really loudly (dreadful hereditary affliction -- thanks, Mr. D!) so when he was sleeping on the couch in the living room, you couldn’t even hold a conversation.

That pretty much scotched any chance of gainful employment for him for the early part of the summer. And then he needed a small surgery in early July. More recuperation. So we got about three weeks worth of work out of him, all told. At least he earned a little spending money for next year. And he’s worth his weight in laughs, such good company, so all around it was fine. Really just fine.

But it wasn’t just him. It was all of his friends. Apparently, everyone in the world had somehow heard that we were providing free room and board to anyone who asked. So we had one kid for ... two months (yeah, two months! But he was quiet and handsome, so I wasn’t complaining too much.)

Another guy stayed for the better part of three weeks. Six members of a male “a cappella” singing group from Cornell slid through (but just for overnight). A fantastic group of guys, no difficulties there, and they loved my homemade buttermilk pancakes. (“Thanks, ‘Mom’!”, times six!)

Some friends of Tarquin’s from Bradley (again, sweet), and then the absolutely adorable son of a collegue of Mr D’s, along with his traveling buddy, for a few days. Yet another pair of cute teen boys-- my girls spent a lot of time on hair and makeup in May and June.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone was polite, nice, it was no big deal. And the testosterone level in the house -- well, we could have bottled that! Quite exciting. For me. I have to take my thrills where I can get them, hey? But the girls got a bit tired of it, eventually. Every time you opened a closed door, there’d be some boy sleeping in the room.

“Eccch, boys!” cried Aphrodite, later in the summer, after most of the novelty had worn off. “They’re just so... so messy... and disgusting!” And the excessive drinking and carousing at 2 am we could have done without, but remember, I don’t sleep much anymore anyway -- you all know that!

Still, the sheer volume of traffic was a bit.... daunting. I didn’t even really realize the extent until halfway through July, when I got the Waitrose bill (grocery charge account). It was truly double the usual. I thought there must have been some mistake.

But then, “no.... let’s see, thirteen extra mouths to feed, for varying lengths of time...? Yup, that makes sense. ...OK, that does it, everybody, we’re moving to flippin’ SOUTH AFRICA!!!” That’ll fix that problem!

Then, on the other hand, there was our oldest son, Peregrine, who decided to work for the summer (what a great concept!) in the USA. He found a job at a summer camp in upstate New York, and with a friend of his, set off to find his fortune.

And did he find it? Are you kidding? This is the story of my family you’re reading here!

No, this is what actually occurred. Two weeks into it, I got a text from him: “Mom, please send me health insurance information.”

Now, this is never good. Never, ever, ever.

I sent the info by text, and then called and called and called. Finally learned that he had contracted Lyme Disease (tick-borne disease common in deer-infested parts of the US) AND a horrible spider bite that had basically blinded him in one eye. Mr. Outdoors he is not.

His girlfriend’s family had rescued him, and transported him back to Cape Cod, MA (very posh!) to recover. This is why I didn’t complain about the 80-something kids staying at my place this summer. It’s because you end up owing on the other end.

And I’ve already incurred major debts with my oldest. He’s stayed all over for more holidays and summers than I want to acknowledge (thanks, everyone!) and I have only just been able to keep track. One would hope that eventually, it all balances out. Do a favor for someone, and they’ll pass it on..... right? Take a favor from someone, and... they gave it freely.... I hope? ...... And they’ll get something in return.... from someone else maybe, even if I can’t pay it back fully..... ?

Anyway, Peregrine ended up getting better (we hope) and he found a full-time job on the Cape, so it all worked out fine in the end.