What is the story with Oscar Pistorius?

What is the story with Oscar Pistorius?

The world took a collective gasp of shock when Oscar Pistorius, internationally successful Paralympic athlete, shot and killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentines Day 2013. Some think that he intended to murder Reeva; he maintains he thought he was shooting a burglar who had broken into his home.

Ultimately, whatever happens, there are no winners in this case. A beautiful young lady, at the brink of a successful career, is dead. Her family are devastated. Oscar has her blood on his hands, his career is in tatters, and his family are devastated too. What sits behind this crime? In a world in which life is valued, is the same value attached to life everywhere?

South Africa is a country in which the “normal” first world approach to the sanctity of life has been skewed. It is a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, outside of a war zone. Firearms are owned and licensed to many private citizens, and security on private homes is taken very seriously, with high walls, electric fences, panic buttons, private security companies and neighbourhood watches considered part and parcel of daily life.

However, a lot of the violence is overtly criminal. The number of unlicensed firearms and illegal gun ownership is extremely high. Armed robberies, hijackings, muggings and seemingly senseless murders, blamed on factors such as anger, poverty, general lawlessness, and the huge rich/poor divide account for much of the murder statistics. However the level of domestic violence is extremely high, with family murders – partners killing partners, estranged spouses murdering their ex-wives or children, and also parents, usually fathers, killing their families before committing suicide themselves, often to escape financial disaster. 

But what caused an affluent and successful national hero to kill his on-again, off-again girlfriend of just 3 months? How could he have possibly thought that the actions of minutes would not destroy decades for two families? He lived in a very secure walled housing complex, with guards, high walls, alarm systems and regular security patrols. What were the chances of a burglar hiding in his toilet? He shot someone, whether he truly thought it was a burglar or whether he knew it was Reeva, through a closed and locked toilet door. His life was not under immediate threat – one of the criteria for taking the life of another. He was sharing a bed with another person. Is it possible to take such dramatic action as firing shots at an unknown intruder that you can’t see, without noticing that the other person in the bed or in the house was nowhere to be seen, and certainly not in the bed next to you? 

Oscar maintains that he did not have his artificial legs strapped on at the time, and therefore felt more vulnerable than a normal able-bodied person will have felt. Does this affect his case? Is he more justified, if this is proven to be true? He went back to his bedroom, strapped on his legs, and only then got around to breaking down the locked toilet door to get at the dying Reeva. Did she not scream or shout or gasp in between the shots? Does it make a difference that he shot several bullets through that door, and not just one disabling shot? 

The psychology involved in growing up in a country with a heightened level of violence has an affect on each of it’s citizens, often in different ways. Likewise, the seemingly invincible feelings of those who have made a lot of money, or achieved particularly high levels of success and recognition in their fields is well documented. He and his brother had got away, at the time of the shooting, with previous violence or thoughtless behaviour that would ordinarily warrant at least a police warning. He was a man who had always felt different to his schoolmates and peers due to his disability. Did that attract special treatment that could have impacted on this event? And what of Reeva, a woman who had recently complained to family and friends about Oscar’s volatile temper and behaviour, but who was due that day to go and speak to children about the problems of domestic abuse. Was she in any way to blame for what happened? 

There are also two devastated families, one with a murdered child, the other with a killer as a child. How easy is either of those situations to cope with, and how do they make sense of life going forward? Whatever the outcome of the court case, the past can never be undone. Life will never return to the same level of “normal”. How do they cope not just with the loss of their child, or the loss of their child’s innocence, but with the loss of freedom and general joie de vivre to them all that will be so difficult for the to get back?
South Africa is also a country with a incredibly high rate of unsolved crimes. There are hundreds of murderers roaming free, able to continue their life of devastation. There are hundreds of families of murdered victims, never knowing why their family member was targeted. Never having the closure of knowing that justice has, as much as possible, been dispensed. I know. My family and I are part of these statistics. 

My little brother Christopher was murdered in his place of work just weeks after his 21st birthday. Four men were arrested, fingerprinted, and released on a bail of less than £4, never to be seen again. Case files were lost or misplaced, policemen pleaded ignorance, justice was never done. At least, odd as it may sound to many, Reeva’s family know who killed her, and will hopefully get some answers and see some justice being delivered. While those whose crimes were less high profile form part of the muddy, murky place where questions are never answered and murder goes unpunished. 

There are physical occurrences, with seemingly concrete reasons and results, but there is the emotional and mental space where decisions are made, actions are taken, and rationalisation of so much seemingly inexplicable behaviour takes place. If we seek to understand this, does it help us to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical? The story behind the story is always fascinating.

What is the story behind Oscar and Reeva?

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Fragrant France and Fabulous Fun!

Fragrant France and fabulous fun!

It’s not often your mum turns 70! In fact, it’s a one-off occasion, and my much loved mum was about to hit this milestone. She has always had a passion and appreciation for good French perfumes. What better birthday gift, I thought, than a trip to the beautiful area of Grasse in the southern part of France, and her own personal perfume-making experience.

As a young, itinerant travelling backpacker, I had visited Grasse a couple of times, and left each time laden down with flagons of beautiful scents. This, however, was going to be my first attempt at creating my own version of my perfect perfume.

Across we flew, just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to Nice Airport. This is a couple of hours away from Grasse whichever route of transport you choose to use, but a flurry of delays on our flight out, which in itself became a parody of flight delay reasons and experiences, caused us to arrive a lot later than we expected, and our transport options needed to be sorted out in the dark. Let’s just say that the thrice-delayed flight actually just laid the foundations for a journey that continued the theme of transport not quite going to plan! Eventually a combination of bus, train, walking and taxi eventually got us to our warm hotel and a good glass of French wine!

Our fragrance course at Galimard Parfumerie was two-part. Day one involved creating your own signature fragrance. I love perfume and find scents very evocative of memories and emotions, and sitting in front of the perfume organ, as they call the array of rows of individual fragrances, was heady! The fragrances are split into base notes, middle notes and high notes, and each one was explained and explored. We then smelled from a series of identifying fragrances, giving you an indication of the fragrance families to which your sense of scent is most attracted. This was my first realisation that you need to forget any preconceptions you may have had about what you like and what you don’t like, and just follow your instincts! Don’t look to read the name of the fragrance, just trust your gut feel and listen to your heart.

We were taken through the process of selecting and mixing first your base notes, followed by your middle notes, and finishing off with the high notes, all sniffed at separately and together, blending and mixing, adjusting and adapting, until eventually you had in front of you a fragrance in which your identity and preferences are key.

Much to our surprise, given that we share a love for many of the same type of perfumes, my mum and I started off with diametrically opposed starting points, and ended up with very different end results. My fragrance brought to mind warmth, floral and mystery, making me feel that I could almost remember something very comforting and beautiful. It reminds me of summer, or autumn. My mum defied her 70 years by developing a fragrance that was fresh and bright, a lovely green and softly spicy scent that harked towards the cleanness of winter or the freshness of spring. And very happily, we both loved both fragrances and were thrilled with their unique personality.

Day two involved the creation of a bespoke home fragrance, and so the perfume organ tended to be populated by the fragrances of things we eat or drink, making it a smaller but nonetheless impressive selection of possibilities. Taken through the same process but with the home as it’s heart, the journey towards this fragrance was different and equally enjoyable. We got to have a trial run, and a second attempt as standard, so if you were completely happy with your first fragrance, you could repeat it, or you could adapt it and leave with two variations of home fragrance. We both opted for the latter, so for the last few weeks my home has smelt more spicy than it will in the next few weeks, when I will uncap and scent my home with a more woody aroma!

Certificate of completion in hand, and a glass of champagne to celebrate our accomplishments, and we left feeling as though we had experienced something unforgettable! While in Grasse, it is well worth exploring the museums and workshops of any of the parfumeries of the area, smelling their beautiful products, and looking at every field of flowers and plants with a new eye, or more to the point, a new nose! The tradition of fine fragrance runs so deep and strong through this part of the French countryside that everyone you meet will happily share their love of what their beautiful area has to offer as it’s speciality.

The town of Grasse is lovely. Big enough to keep you completely occupied for days if you choose, it is populated with eateries, shops, museums and churches that have much to offer, and the sheer loveliness of the countryside is a treat in itself. We chose to catch a bus to Nice, and I am always quick to confess that I love the opportunity to have a little peek into the lives of others. Driving through the little towns and villages, past the schools and homes of people living a life that is somehow so different to your own, and yet in many ways so similar, is one of my great personal joys of travel. Arriving in Nice by daylight was a lot easier than arriving by night, and as the South of France has always been one of my top destination spots, it seemed like a great idea to spend our last day exploring Nice and, given the time of the year, it’s Christmas market.

Despite a double knee replacement, my mum has always chosen to embrace life and it’s opportunities and when she accompanies us on holidays, she is as game as we are to walk anywhere in the world flat. Her knee surgeons would be proud of the fact that she intends utilising the new lease of life her improved knees have given her, and use them tirelessly! And walk we did! From enormous shopping centres to the much anticipated market, we explored Nice. We used it’s great bus service but we also walked miles, and the only downside of our Christmas market visit was the rain!

It was certainly not the biggest Christmas market I have visited, but it was a lovely mix of food, drink, gifts, flowers and unusual bits and pieces. It was only when I was waiting for my flight, carting around two lovely bunches of fragrant lavender and roses, that I questioned my sanity! There is a lot to be said for winter markets in Europe, because delicious coffee, hot chocolate and fresh crepes clutched in cold hands under sheltering awnings taste better than ever, and warm restaurants serving good food become not just a high point, but a dry point as well!

It was without a doubt a birthday present that I know my mum will remember and appreciate forever. Sometimes, we need to think about what we love, and what memories and experiences we want to take with us in our memory banks into the rest of our lives, and make them happen. Sometimes those things will be small and easily achievable, and sometimes they will seem hugely challenging and difficult to make real. This was a dream come true that was relatively easy to make a reality, but many of the dreams we might have may take a lot of thought, time, money and effort. But always, the end result is priceless. Life should be a series of experiences, not a frustration of empty dreams. May you enjoy every minute of making your wishes come true!

What dreams do you want to make come true? And what dreams do those you love wish to experience?

The Majesty of Morocco

The Majesty of Morocco

For as long as I can remember, Marrakech has been one of the destinations on my bucket list. For some reason, as a backpacking teenager I ended up seeing plenty of North Africa and of the Middle East, but Morocco remained an elusive travel dream awaiting fulfilment. Time, I decided, to change this, and so off to Marrakech we flew, early in February, from a cold, wet and windy England.

As we drove past the old city walls of the Medina on our way to our hotel, and the bustle of life was in full swing even in the hours of darkness, I had a feeling that I had just landed in a place that was to play a special role in my life.

Our quirky boutique hotel, the beautiful Dar Sabra, nestled in the upmarket area of La Palmierie, was a great find. Our “Asiatique” suite may have been littered with very strange fantasy pictures of Mao Tse Tung in various European cities, but the petal strewn bed in the middle of a sweepingly large room, facing directly towards a wall of window was impressive, and the bathtub could have put any paddling pool to shame. The grounds are littered with sculptures and iconic pop art, the hotel is staffed by the most delightfully friendly and attentive people, and the pools, the jacuzzi, the gym and the spa were exactly what I had in mind for a down-time piece of paradise.

Built originally as a family home, Dar Sabra must have been a lovely place to live, but it’s conversion into an exclusive hotel has lent it an air of homeliness alongside it’s offbeat luxury. The lovely Denise and the charmingly efficient Hassan ensured that every whim became a reality, and the chef with no name who made the marvellous hot tomato sauce to accompany my breakfast each morning are a real asset to the business.

Thanks to a sense of adventure, a passable grasp of French, a dozen or so words of Arabic, and a willingness to drive in any country in the world, our rented car enabled us to explore a great deal more of Morocco than we had anticipated being able to do, but a few areas deserve special mention. First and foremost, the romantic, hippy, easy-going city of Marrakech, with it’s blend of old and new, of Berber and Taoureg, of Arab, African and European culture stole my heart completely. Whether you want the colour and texture of driving a hard bargain buying souvenirs and experiencing the noise, camaraderie and atmosphere of the souks, or you are looking for a more European shopping experience of high-end malls and familiar brands, the choice is yours. And the majestic ryads, modern complexes and traditional close-set lean-to homes each add their own edge to the complexity of the city.

I had always loved the idea of Casablanca. How could I possibly visit Morocco and not visit one of it’s biggest cities, and the financial hub of the country? And so off we drove to see what it had to offer. Not a pretty city, unfortunately, but certainly a interesting one, Casablanca has the most incredibly big port I could have imagined, and it’s mix of local and international commercial giants prove it is a city that competes very competently on a international level. It also enabled me to experience probably my favourite meal of the whole trip – a lamb tagine against which I did, and will continue to, measure every tagine I sample!

I was blown away by the beautiful Essaouria, a coastal city on the Atlantic Ocean which has the charm of the seaside, the history and culturally appealing alleyways and cobbled squares filled with quaint little shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and the buzzing feel of an artists quarter in an already art and culture rich country. It is also on the road between Marrakech and Essaouria that argan oil is farmed and produced into it’s luxuriant resulting products.

I’ve been saving the best till last – the incredible Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks rise majestically above the dry and arid plains of the countryside! Without a doubt, it is these incredible mountains that sealed the deal in making this little part of the planet a place that I hope to visit time and again. The cityscape of Marrakech is certainly enhanced by the heart wrenching beauty and miracle of snowy mountains in desert-like surroundings, and sheer impressive size when viewed against the relative flatness of it’s surrounding land. Driving through these mountains is incredible, with Berber life in all it’s natural flow. On the other side of the range is the Sahara Desert, home of the Taoureg. Streams, rivers, people, earth-coloured homes, bright coloured clothes and ornaments, all combine together to create something very special.

Moroccan food is superb, whether you’re inclined towards the tagines, kebabs, pastillas and couscous-based local fare, or you choose to go for something more European. And while the fancy restaurants are beautiful, the tiny eateries with their bright decor and handful of tables are also superb, and the street food, eaten alongside the working and socialising locals, is just as good.

Morocco is famous for it’s carpets and ceramics, but it’s herbs, spices, jewellery, scarves, wooden carvings, and interesting furniture are lovely for those with money to spend and a hard head for bargaining. The difference between my African roots and my husband’s English ones were interesting when it came to bartering and bargaining. The “first price” on either side is never the “last price”, it is just a stake in the ground. A purchase is a piece of business where both parties are expected to respect both themselves, the other party, and the transaction at hand. You each have what the other wants. One has the goods, one has the money, and an agreement on when the offer on the table is right for both parties to shake hands on the deal is a mutually reached decision. I found it respectful, my other half found it stressful. Different strokes for different folks!

My birth and upbringing in Africa have always made it my home continent, and for it’s beauty and experience and lovely people I am forever grateful. But for the most part, Africa has a rawness that can at times be as painful as it can be beautiful. My origins are European, with an English mother and an Irish father, and an ancestry that stretches back for hundreds of years in the British Isles. The comfort of the gentleness of much of first-world life is not to be diminished. There is something wonderful about systems that function, and I am always appreciative of the comfort and ease of European influence. But since my first forays into the Middle East as a teenager, into countries like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iran, I have wanted to live in the Middle East. To me, it is like the centre of the world, from which so much has flowed, and I love it.

Always, these three variations of life, all of which I love, have warred within me, leaving me feeling as though I belong everywhere, but at the same time I belong nowhere. Morocco is finally the country in which these three lives feel as though they have clicked together into a whole. It is African, with the Arab Middle Eastern influence, and with European neighbours across just a few miles of water, and extensive French and Spanish influence during the years of occupation. It is a fusion of so much of what the world has to offer. Inshallah I will return many times in my life.

Where does your heart and soul resonate? What aspects of life are the ones that whisper in your ear and make you feel like you are in the place you can call home?

Moving up Mountains – Reflections on Gauteng

Moving up mountains – Reflections on Gauteng

I may have been born and brought up in KwaZulu Natal, but we then moved up to the Big City – Johannesburg! I remember the fear and trepidation I felt as that young girl moving from rural tranquility into busy, cut-throat, fast moving Johannesburg, the City of Gold. It took a while to adjust to something so different from my norm, but adjust I did, and my love for, and admiration of this part of South Africa was cemented, and remains intact to this day.

On my last two speaking trips to South Africa, I had a blast travelling around this area again, ranging from Johannesburg and Pretoria, to Irene and Krugersdorp. Let me share a couple of pretty unique features of moving onto the South African plateau. Firstly, very few people realise how far above sea level most of South Africa lies. Just slightly inland from the coast is a ring of mountains, ranging from the Drakensburg in KwaZulu Natal, through to Table mountain in Cape Town, and an incredible set of mountain ranges in between. And then the rest of the country inside of the coastline lives at varying heights of the plateau that results from these craggy and majestic mountains.

Johannesburg itself is over 6 000 feet above sea level – that’s heading on for close on two kilometres above sea level! The second highest big city in the world, as far as I know, second only to Mexico City. This results in a couple of things – “thinner” air, sometimes making it necessary for a period of adjustment to allow your body to get used to this atmosphere, and also, wonderful weather all year round. The Highveld is probably the most ideal all-year-round climate I have found. Cold and dry in winter, moving from below freezing and frost-festooned nights, to lukewarm during the day. Hot and dry in summer, with rainfall that mainly falls in dramatic late-afternoon thunderstorms, true raw beautiful African style. Spectacular!

Many foreigners, restricted often to Sandton, usually only as a quick stop on the way to the Kruger National Park, see a very flashy, gaudy and very impressive glimpse of the Northern Suburbs. While Sandton can rival Los Angeles for it’s flash-your-cash blinging lifestyle, it also competes for the prize for Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses overextension of funds. The shops groan with luxuries, the homes are big and bold, and the cars are status symbols on wheels. Behind the veneer, stress levels are often high, with many folks strung to the hilt in debt, working like Trojans to keep the cash coming in to feed the hungry hands of those they owe.

Actually, the variation in the villages, town and cities in South Africa generally and in Gauteng too, is immense. Ranging from squalid poverty and neglect, to impressively beautiful ranging homesteads, all human life is encapsulated in Gauteng. The rich and the poor rub shoulders, and it is usually the poor gazing onto the lifestyles of the rich that must cause the most confusion as to what is normal. What makes some have, and some have not?

Of course the answer to this question is enormous, and not answerable in this short article, but lack of employment, reduced circumstances, huge distances and lousy travel infrastructure, interrupted education, lack of experience and in some cases sheer laziness contribute, like in most of the world, to create a vast pool of have-nots. For some, this inspires action. Some of the most incredible stories of success come out of the direst of circumstances, but in other cases, the action is destructive to people, communities, and to the country as a whole. This is a country where violent crime is normal, and Gauteng tops the list of areas where more lives are lost through murder than any other area in the world outside of a war zone.

Unfortunately, crime is slightly different in South Africa. Sure, there are people who will steal to feed their families, and in a country of quiet desperation, while it cannot be condoned, it can be understood. But this is a country in which it seems to be seen as a “right” to own cars, electronics, jewellery, and luxury items, just because other people own them. It is not the poor that steal.

Crime is particularly cruel here. Cars are hijacked, armed house robberies and resultant murders are daily occurrences, and many an innocent person will lose their life over a handbag, a car, a bicycle, in fact, anything. South Africans will always come back with the line that there is crime in every country. And yes, there is. But this crime is bigger, badder and more blatantly considered the “norm” than in most of the world. Armed guards, panic buttons, razor wire and high walls, burglar bars and security gates, armed residents and street patrols are not the norm. Nobody should have to spend their lives constantly feeling that sense of fear. It is easy to pretend you’re alright, but when a member of your family is gunned down in cold blood, it sure hits home how fragile our hold on life is, in a country where life seems to have lost so much of it’s value.

South Africans are rightly proud of their country. I know I am. It is beautiful beyond belief, and 99% of it’s people are amazingly warm, friendly and intelligent. They are hard working and funny, real and vulnerable, strong, and with hearts of gold. But that one percent is like a cancer, eating away at all that is beautiful until the focus rests solely on what is wrong, because the fear is that it cannot be cured. Cry, my beloved country. Please, may the day come where respect, love, compassion and intelligence will save the day, and it’s light will banish it’s darkness for once and for all. South Africa, I love you with all my heart, but I lost somebody incredibly special to me in the bloody streams of sadness that run deep through your soul. I pray that other families, and future generations not yet born, will be able to live without fear of loss, and instead with roundness of possibility.

Are you ready to allow your strengths to blossom and your weaknesses to wither?

This article is dedicated to the memory of my little brother, Christopher James Cox, gunned down senselessly at the age of 21 in his place of work. I love you Chris. May your loss never be forgotten.

A toe-dipping coastal jaunt around the southern coast of Africa!

A toe-dipping coastal jaunt around the southern coast of Africa!

I am South African. I have an English mum and an Irish dad, but my brother and I were born and brought up in South Africa. And the truth is that, no matter where life takes you, you may leave Africe, but Africa never leaves you.

For the last 5 years, my family and I have been living happily in the lovely country of England, but when I get the chance to go back to South Africa, I tend to leap at the chance. And luckily for me, I’ve had two chances to return to South Africa on speaking tours this year. For me, these were a valuable opportunity to do two things: firstly, reconnect with my roots, and my amazing circle of friends, and secondly, look at South Africa with a dual perspective of knowing what’s going on from an internal and an external view. I’d love to share some of my beautiful homeland with you.

I landed in Durban, into a warm, balmy day. A brand new airport greeted me, and as I was driven along sugar-cane lined roads to my hotel, I felt a real sense of homecoming. I was born just down the drag from Durbs in a place called Amanzimtoti, or more accurately Umbogintwini, and so the sounds of the sea have been with me since my birth. And I was brought up in the beautiful Natal Midlands, which was in so many respects, an incredibly idyllic setting for a childhood. This is a part of the country that enfolds me when I go back to it. The people are amazingly warm and real, the temperature is always hot, and thanks to the wonderful warm Mozambique current, so is the sea!

The growth and development here has been amazing, with new shopping centres, improved suburbs, and a huge increase in seaside market stalls and food outlets. I was thrilled to be able to eat one of my favourite meals, Bunny Chow. God knows where it got it’s name, but bunny chow is deliciously tasty Durban curry, served in a hollowed out half a loaf of bread. It may sound unglamorous, but I defy you to find another meal that satisfies your taste buds in quite the same way!

However, this incredible positive development sits alongside one of the highest Aids rates in the country, and the usual huge division between the haves, and the have nots, which is no longer defined along racial lines, but the statistics are much the same. Out of every ten people in SA, eight of them are generally Black, one will be White, and one will be of another Ethnic group. Now, the lines of poverty mimic this ratio. Out of every ten people, eight are broke, one is comfortable, and one is rich. The hues may have changed in each group, but the hugeness of the reality of a tough life is still glaring. The more things change, the more things stay the same…

The next city I worked in is that incredible city that sits nestled in the shadow of one of the natural wonders of the world, Table Mountain. Cape Town is justifiably considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With mountains on one side, and sea on the other, and an incredible sense of vibrancy in between, Cape Town is truly magical.

Capetonians are a bit of a special breed of people. Laid back compared to most go-getter South Africans (but still pretty focused by world standards) Cape Town can be a slightly frustrating place to do business. It’s all about the lifestyle, rather than the money, which is well and good, but the amount of debt that they are often living in means that the scenery may be beautiful, but the cupboards are bare. The sea is sparkling, but thanks to the Cold Benguela current, it is freezing cold!

But remember when you see the obvious beauty that, not too far from the Tourist Trap Cape Town is real life, and it ain’t easy! Cape Town is blessed with that colourful group of characters that tend to come from the group referred to as “Cape Coloureds”. A cultural mix of Black, White, Hottentot, Indian, Malay and probably a number of others, the mixing bowl of their lives and their origins has in many cases produced magic! You will never find a nicer, funnier, more irreverent, cannier, warmer group of people! You cannot help but love them.

This is also the area of South Africa with, as far as I know, the highest level of girls versus boys, which is skewed even more by the fact it is probably the homosexual capital of the country. If you are single, female, and looking for a man, you would probably need to take a holiday elsewhere! Downsides of Cape Town to me have always been their terrible winter weather, and their geographical isolation from the rest of the country…. Although perhaps that independence of location is exactly what Capetonians treasure the most….

The third coastal city I want to mention before I move inland for my next blog, is half-way between the two in the Eastern Cape, and that is the Sunshine City, Port Elizabeth. Now I have a very soft spot for this beautifully friendly place. I spent many years taking holidays in their relative neighbour, Port Alfred, and P.E. was the “big city” visit an hour’s drive down the coast, so it always takes me by surprise when I see it’s smallness of size from the air.

There is something quite old fashioned about Port Elizabeth, and I mean that in the most positive possible way. Friendships seem to last, business can still be conducted on a handshake, and children can still be found playing in the parks, cycling to each other’s homes, and looking carefree compared to some of the haunted looks on the faces of some of the big city dweller kids.

By modern standards, this is a slumbering city, but it contains some amazingly successful big businesses and makes a real contribution to the economy of the country. However, if you’re unemployed in P.E., I would imagine your concern about being able to find a job would be very real, hence the large scale migration to the bigger cities by the younger population.

Without a shadow of a doubt, South Africa is a country of huge beauty and huge pain; of beauty and harshness huddled together. In some ways I miss it more than I thought possible, but in other ways I am delighted to be outside of it’s influence. It is life, condensed into one reality with extremes of all of life’s states and experiences. This experience of being face to face with life’s realities makes South Africans a very real set of people, with fairly solid priorities. I am proud to count myself amongst their numbers.

Are you living a life that includes beauty and pain? Give thanks for the balance and the diversity it creates within you!

Israel, Palestine & the history they hold

Israel, Palestine & the history they hold…

I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting Israel, because there were a couple of key things on my bucket list that I would finally get to see and experience for myself. And so when I set my alarm for 1.50am, it was of no real odds to me because the prospect of where I was going was likely to keep me awake with anticipation anyway. And the good news is that the time spent in this astonishing country delivered on all my hopes and expectations.

My first encounter with Israel was the hustling, bustling, vibrant town of Eilat, situated right next to the border with Egypt. This is a tax-free shopping area, even for locals, and with the resultant savings of 18%, it attracts a huge number of shoppers & traders into it’s orbit, and of course that led to another encounter that paved the way for the day ahead – security!

Between Egypt and Israel, no less than seven officials looked at, stamped, or stuck stickers on our passports. It seemed an interesting approach to take – check on your colleague and make sure they’ve done their job! So after all this flurry of authorisation and issuing of visas, it took about 20km for us to have our first random stop and passport check of the day, courtesy of the Israeli Army.

All Israelis are expected to do military service – 3 years for men & 2 years for women. Given the history of this area I understand their decision to have compulsory military service, but it results in a lot of uniformed, armed young adults having to be given something to do, & a huge use of this resource seems to be ad hoc stop & passport checks, which is probably not the ideal way of encouraging international visitors!

Israel is largely desert, or more correctly, a collection of deserts, each with their own name. A small country, long and thin in shape, Israel holds within it the seeds of several of our biggest religions. I couldn’t shake this thought when I took my first steps into the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at almost half a kilometre below sea level. Isn’t it interesting that these religions bubbled up from the deep core of ourselves & of our Earth?

The Dead Sea was a wonderful experience & has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember! Not only do you float with astonishing buoyancy, but it is difficult to stop floating! even when you manage to regain your vertical position, it is almost impossible to get your feet to touch the sea bed.

Known for it’s huge salt and mineral content, and the power to heal so many conditions, it is extremely sad that it is shrinking in size constantly, so much so that the salt does not just float in saltbergs on the water, but it has caused sinkholes around the dried up sea bed too, causing a danger to anyone wishing to explore any of the surrounding areas. I know the lack of flow into the sea is as a result of creating a domestic water supply for this arid area, but there must surely be a less damaging way to do this!

Moving back to the subject of religion, I felt like I was experiencing a Biblical show and tell! We moved through Old Testament settings for familiar stories like that of Sodom and Gomorrah and Masada, but it was Jerusalem that gave me that feeling that I was truly in a place of magic.

Religion has always fascinated me. I would describe myself as Spiritual rather than Religious in the traditional sense of the world, but religion has and continues to have such a huge impact on the world and it’s people, and the way religion has been used over the centuries to control people is astonishing. I would never sit in judgement on anybody’s choice of religion, but I have studied religion for years out of sheer curiosity, and now I was making my first trip to the centre of three of the world’s key religions!

I consider myself fortunate – I was raised Catholic, by an Irish Catholic father and an English Protestant mother. My family range from Baptist and Buddhist, to Jewish and Catholic, and I spent years at a Jewish school. I have always had a huge number of Jewish friends who formed the majority of my teenage social circle. My secondary schooling took place in a Convent (my parents obviously decided I needed a mindset of open-minded religious tolerance…!) And as an adult I have ended up doing an enormous amount of work within the Muslim community. How exciting to visit Jerusalem, knowing the significance of this amazing place to so many people.

It is impossible, standing on the Mount of Olives, looking over the Garden of Gethsemane, or walking along the Via Dolorosa in the final footsteps of Christ, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcre, the site of the crucifixion; or to stand at the Wailing Wall, putting your prayer into one of it’s crevices while listening to the chant of Sabbath prayers from the synagogue alongside it; or to see the huge gold Dome of the Temple where Muhammed dreamt of his ladder from heaven, strewn with Angels, while asleep in Mecca, and not feel a frisson, a sensation, a shiver of knowing that you are truly in a special place. And to know that, no matter what differences there are between us human beings, we all long for the same thing… A sense of purpose and a sense of belonging to something wonderful.

Our last trip took us into Palestinian controlled Bethlehem, where we could visit the Church of the Nativity, and see the birthplace of Christ. Where we could see the room in which the New Testament was lovingly transcribed into Latin. Through the centre of Israel can be found the Palestinian controlled territories, with restrictions enforced against Jews wishing to enter the area.

Much to my horror, this was also where I witnessed the lovely Muslim family that we were travelling with, told that they couldn’t enter the Church of the Nativity, and when they politely requested permission, were told they could quickly “go in, see, and come out”. However, the Mosque in Jerusalem was also off limits to non-Muslims. Is this truly the way to create harmony and understanding in a world in which both of these traits are sadly lacking?

And that, I think, was what stayed in my mind as a huge question mark. In a way, it is lovely that these areas are living, breathing memorials, with daily life being lived on the streets, and religious services being held regularly in all these sites. But would the God that all these religions bow down before, regardless of what they choose to call him, want to see that they were cause of so much division, disharmony and distress?

What would God say, if we truly chose to listen to Him, instead of manipulating our relationship with Him for our own ends? Would He be applauding the hatred, the fear, the division? I think not! I think if we bothered to listen, we may instead hear a heartfelt prayer, from our God to us, that we honour Him by living, loving and laughing together. By treating both ourselves and our neighbours with respect, with acceptance and with open-armed warmth. Please, let’s not lose the real focus of the core of these religions: love your neighbour as yourself; and make sure you live a life in which you do more good than harm.

Aren’t we ready to put down arms, and instead hold each other safely in each others arms?

An Egyptian Encounter

An Egyptian Encounter

Egypt is a country that I have thoroughly enjoyed on previous visits, and I was looking forward to introducing my family to some of it’s splendour, so we opted for a holiday in a part of the country new to me, but close enough to be able to fly the family up to Cairo to see the pyramids and sphinx, Egyptian museum, Khan el Kalil market and the like. Countdown to leaving, and we wondered if the holiday would actually happen with the political upheaval in Egypt, and the uncertainty about international action on Syria, another country I’ve had the pleasure of visiting at length, and now feel so sad about it’s current conflict.

Fortunately our holiday destination was Taba Heights, on the Sinai Peninsula, and therefore very removed from the chaos of parts of mainland Egypt. And it was with fascination that we landed in what must be one of the most isolated international airports in the world! Nestled amongst the sands and rocky outcrops of the Sinai Desert, the airport looked a little like an abandoned landing station on an alien landscape. Wherever you looked, smooth rock faces towered above us, and fine sand covered every surface. The bus ride from the Airport was fascinating – both in the fact that we didn’t see another vehicle for at least half an hour, and also in the fact that we did wonder if there was a destination to be reached at all. What on earth was going to be at the end of the journey?

And then, like the proverbial oasis in the desert, arose an astonishing sight – the Gulf of Aqaba, an offshoot of the Red Sea, and alongside it a set of beautiful hotels, with a world class 18-hole golf course (no mean feat in a desert!) looking like a huge green carpet against the earth-tones that surrounded it.

What a spectacular destination our odd little desert-oasis turned out to be! To the one side, stark and craggy mountains loomed out of the heat haze, and on the other stretched the calm and warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. On the other side of the Gulf were the lights of the Saudi Arabian coastline, flickering against the velvet background of the black night skies. Look a little further along, and if you know your geography, you would realise that Israel and Jordan were also edge on into the coastline, each offering their own spectacular sights and sounds to be explored and discovered by the intrepid world wanderer.

Talking of skies, the stars were a sight to behold. Without a cloud to be found, and no real artificial light to speak of, the stars held centre court, feeling at times so close, that you could reach out and touch them. Always, things of beauty are all the more heart-stopping when they appear in the darkest of times. The stars against the night sky, the sea agains the desert, the golf green against the sand. Would any of the things that seem special to us, be worth the same if they didn’t sit alongside the normality of the ordinary?

A couple of scuba dives revealed the extent of the coral and marine life that lives so peacefully under that warm and inviting water of the Red Sea. I had never scuba dived before, and loved the opportunity to float silently amongst the splendour of a world hidden to most of us. Every piece of coral or rocky outcrop had it’s own self appointed sea urchin or two, with their long black spikes threatening off any potential invaders. The larger fish nestled by choice inside or under the bigger holes and gaps around each rocky outcrop, while the small, brightly coloured fish swim busily, with every hue and shade of colour turning the sea into a riot of dramatic visual movement and change.

Without exception, the locals were lovely. Friendly, funny, and never pushy, despite what must be an enormous downturn in their revenue streams since tourists got cold feet about travelling to the Middle East, the bargaining and bartering was fun, the value for money offered by most of those with wares to sell was great, and the hospitality they offered was touching. Once you’d met them, you had a friend for the duration of the trip, with Egyptian tea, soft drinks, cold water and small gifts a frequent part of any visit.

I am delighted to have spent time in this weirdly wonderful part of this lovely planet we call Earth. It is always refreshing and interesting to explore something so very different to the ordinary. And it reminds you just how diverse our little planet is. In a world where everything is becoming more uniform; where chain stores are replicated across country boundaries, and architectural styles of buildings are poached from their places of origin, it is so good to see that individuality and difference is something to be celebrated and treasured.

Many of the places I’ve visited tend, over time, to blend in my memories, and recollections start becoming photographic memories of the things that stood out as different from the rest, while the parts of uniform and predictable beauty get sifted into a big melting pot of generic experience. Going to a place like the Sinai means that it will, just because of it’s difference, be one of those places that leaves a video-memory impact on my mind. It is a holiday experience I am unlikely to forget in a hurry!

And isn’t that true of all of us too? So many seek to conform to what we think is normal, and beautiful, and special. And yet in seeking some communal goal of perfection and acceptability, aren’t we also choosing to turn our backs on the quirks that might not seem perfect, but which are actually the very things that make us special and memorable? If someone remembers you for the shape of your nose, or the loudness of your laugh, or the size of your feet, or your left-field take of the world, how can that be a bad thing? It is our differences that we should be celebrating, our memorable non-conformist looks, behaviour or personality that makes each of us unique. So if you ever want to know why you’re really beautiful, take a close look in the mirror, and truly see what you are looking at. See the things that make you look like you, and celebrate each and every one of them. Who on earth bothers to remember the perfectly ordinary? And why would you want to be perfectly ordinary, when you are far more easily able to be perfectly, splendidly, uniquely YOU?!