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Reverence of the Canyon

Fishriver Canyon – Revered

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In the end, there is nothing that can prepare you for this experience.

“Make sure you have proper maps…”

“Ah, don’t worry about maps, just follow the river.”

“Better take a tent, you are so exposed…”

“Never. I would never take a tent, just imagine, the whole expanse as your ceiling.”

“Nyaa, don’t worry. It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

“Don’t bother with thermals – 40 plus degrees, promise.”

Well meaning friends and experienced relatives echoed the advice from blogs, Google and Parks Board experts.

So, we decided to play it safe and prepare. Properly.

We anticipated the difficulties and we expected the survivals. We planned for the unforeseen and we shut out the fear.

We were ready, but the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

Descent

The descent lived up to its reputation. Chains to hang onto while adjusting balance with loaded backpacks.

Slow, step-by-step to protect toes. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs. Breathers to inhale scenery.

Three and a half hours and we conquered a mere 2 km. That’s fine, we told ourselves.

A good rest, a swim and only a few more kms before camping. Then bliss under the stars.

But it took another three very long hours to the night-stop which was only 2 km away.

From the exhaustion perspective it was perfect…

By a tamarisk tree and on a soft patch of beach – which we would soon learn to dread –we settled with snacks, water and a shy moon.

We were too tired to cook. Clouds that we had hardly noticed quickly combined into a noisy storm.

So we spent our first night easing into the routine under a sky consumed by thunder and lightning, flimsily covered with a shiny space blanket protecting our sleeping bags; now filled with aching limbs and throbbing feet.

The next morning we awoke to a world washed and clean.

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Elaborating on each day would fill a book with tales of disaster, and a hospital quota of aches and indescribable pains.

Suffice to say we lost the trail, we lost the canyon, we lost spirit, I lost my phone and my camera, we lost track of distances and we found tiredness beyond words. Saturated in a depressing sense of hopelessness.

By the fifth day, which was meant to be our last, we finally made peace with the way we smelt.

We developed a disinterest in the sand in our ears, our beds and our coffee. Dirt and survival were now our companions.

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We did, however, appreciate the crystal clear skies at night – with a view of stars and satellites untainted, which was humbly breathtaking.

We treasured the clean wash of a swig of whiskey through a sandy mouth and a dusty throat.

We slept in awe under a never ending expanse of sky too majestic to grasp.

And we learned to simply turn our backs to the wind when it took us by surprise in the middle of the night.

We danced (albeit with measured limping) with joy when we encountered a flat, hard piece of track.

And we eventually stopped moaning about the miles of sand interspersed with light-years of boulders and rocks.

We made good use of the puddles to splash saltpeter off our toning bodies and eventually stopped purifying the drinking water.

We licked our fingers after we polished the bowls of dehydrated meals. And we finally just slept with our shoes on.

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Then we arrived. A day later than planned.

The emotions of finally reaching the end wiped clean the memory bank of pain and suffering.

Pretty much like birth pains – you forget.

The uncertainty of the next step, the agonizing survival of pain, the desperation of a never-ending cycle all disappeared in the relief, the release and the reward of finishing.

Merely a week later and the suffering is already a distant memory. Awe is what remains.

“Unforgettable,” is what I say when asked…

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Beasts and Bidders

The Auction

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HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

The understandable introduction of “Do I have thirty, thirty, thirty? Start me off with twenty, fifteen, ten?” disappears in the crescendo of his hypnotic alien talk.

I try and focus on the task at hand.

“You take pictures of the bidders in action”, the cheeky (but cute) Argentinian consultant tells me.

In an auction-induced-trans I stalk around the pavilion of seats and aim my lens at unsuspecting visitors, searching for elusive buyers. The packed audience all stare solemnly ahead. I follow the stare. The prancing prize is NOT the team behind the loud pedestal, but a beast. I read somewhere that the slightest eye contact can cost you a few. The bull is the focus until he becomes the object of desire. Only then, dare you look at the auctioneer. Weird sport.

Camera ready; finger hovering; I wait. I listen, but can’t decipher, and I wait more. Taking photos of interesting shapes and sizes of noses and ears, as I wait. The secret of any spy documentary –THAT moment.

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

“YES” and an assistant’s arm shoots up to point somewhere above and behind me. I swirl around. Nothing, but dead pan faces and mannequin poses. Not a stir. I squint.

I wait. The droning continues with more zest. I wait. HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

Now alert, I scan the faces either side of the pavilion. Caps and glasses hide the eyes, pens hang between lips and fingers tap a picture of the beast, waiting to write up the number and the price of the (missed?) opportunity.

Not a single movement.

The hammer hovers.

“Going for the first…. the second….the third time”. Bang.

Ruffling of papers and murmurs over the loudspeaker. The team looks up – an unfamiliar buyer.

“Can we have your number, please sir?”

This is a numbers game. I love numbers, but this one makes no sense.

Behind me a white square eagerly shoots up.

“Thank you number 47, Sir!”

Finally. A glimpse of the mysterious Gunston guy. Not at all what I expected, but nonetheless, I snap away while the action continues.

Action means a wink, a nose rub, a squiff smile or an unnoticeable nod.

And HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

Now that I know where the main bidder is I keep him under surveillance.

I notice the conspiracy between him and his accomplice; hardly detectable conversations and pointing at the catalogue. Then a chewing of a pen and a tilt of the head that sends the auctioneer into another pitch:

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

I slip behind the seated sides and try capturing the bidding from another angle. Sneaking my lens between heads and shoulders, I find Gunston. His focus is on another beast of magnificence. His accomplice’s finger tapping on a picture, also avoiding the team behind the loudspeaker.

HundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandaGunston!

The babble is reaching a crescendo and still not a movement from Gunston. I look for other signs of communication. Nothing. Hardly breathing. Neither am I, in anticipation.

“Are you all done? Going for the first…. the second…. are you sure, sir? Are you ALL DONE SIR? Going for the third time!”. Bang.

I swing in the direction the auction team is looking. Another satisfied beaming face, but not Gunston. GUNSTON? AREYOUDONESIR? Alien talk suddenly becomes comprehensible. There is no Gunston.

Hundredardreeeeejandeendaadjayandareyoudonesir?

I giggle.

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Tick-Tock

When the beep-beep became a tick-tock

I woke up.

Something changed over the past week. My ears strained – there it was. The change. The whoosh of movement next door, captured by sensitive technology, alternated with a gentle tick-tock. I quickly checked the device, making sure it was working. Tick-tock? Comforted that it was fully functional, I tiptoed to her room.

A week ago the same baby monitor left my nerves in tatters.

Every sound from the machine echoed within me. My body responded with jumps and palpitations. The supposedly reassuring beep-beep indicating normal breathing from baby, jarred miniscule synapses between nerve-endings behind my eyes and inside my ears. With abnormal responses in my breathing.

It shattered the silence of the night with it’s rhythmic incantations. The slightest change jolted my eyelids, my own heartbeat drowned the beep-beep, my bare feet found their way to her bedside. Fumbling. A slow exhale normalized my symptoms as the precious parcel wiggled in her dream and expertly closed her mouth around the misplaced pacifier.

Anxious moments followed the dummy-in procedure, waiting for any kind of response and when there was none, the returning to my bed – wide awake. Cold and displaced. From where I then proceeded to watch the beeping monster on the bedside table and let the cycle repeat itself till the break of day.

By the third night I could distinguish between dream-moans and real-wake moans. I could inhale normally between the beep-beep and its unpredicted gaps or speed-ups. My heart did not escape through my throat. My mind did not chase after normal sounds around me. And I could avoid the stare down of the monster when I kicked off my slippers. I managed a few drifty hours of sleep.

By the fifth night I could casually stroll into her room (gowned and slippered), avoid eye contact and persist in establishing a sleeping pattern. I even had a few hours of blissful deafness towards the beep-beep. Although the sound remained invasive when not asleep. And I woke up to a knot-free stomach and un-puffy eyes. Without a glance towards the source of the sound.

Now it was a week later.

I gently surfaced to a sense of change. The mist of worry dissipated. I tiptoed to her side. Dummy in. Patted her on the back. Waited a moment to settle. Tiptoed back to my bed. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Sleeping pattern established. Tick-tock. Lulled back to my own sweet remains of a dream. Tick-tock.

It was with the sounds of sunrise that the reality hit me. Where did the piercing beep-beep go?

The power of adaptation. It re-established my admiration for the man and his theory – Darwin. A subtle change in sensitivity towards circumstances that makes the unbearable bearable. The choice of waiting and the reward of gaining.

The power of allowing beep-beeps to turn into tick-tocks.

I survived. I adapted. I waited. I gained.

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My baby with baby

My baby with baby

“Stairs or lift?” I asked my round-bellied-pregnant little girl, Andy. She glanced at the clock behind the reception desk, looked down at the take-away cappuccinos in our hands and smiled at me.

 

“Stairs. It’s only 11h00 and I’m sure they won’t mind waiting few more minutes for their coffee? I need to exercise this baby into real life.” The coffee sloshed against the sides of the too hot paper cups as we settled into the rhythm of climbing stairs.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes, and the first landing.

 

We spaced the paper cups on a step – four; one for me, one for Andy, one for my bald-headed friend and one for her chemo roommate – for a quick blow on our scorched hands. I observed with caution as she bent with more than a groan to pick up her two cups, hissing a breath in and whistling one out.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes, the first floor.

 

“No Mom, they are on the second floor, come on!”

I watched the exaggerated waggle and lift an experienced eyebrow, mumbling to myself,

“Ok.”

Around the corner we waltzed.

Twelve steps, eleven sloshes and the second landing.

 

The few seconds break to rescue our burning hands, blowing, panting and giggling before tackling the last around-the-corner. I could see the door onto the second floor. In a minute we would chat over coffee.

Twelve more steps.

 

“Um, Mom?”

My own seasoned motherly instinct grasped it before the question registered. I looked at her, just knowing.

“Is this normal?”

She pointed at the puddle starting at her feet.

 

My heart jumped for joy – and fear. My firstborn was about to give birth to her firstborn.

“We better phone Luke” I sounded unruffled but my insides conveyed a different message. I looked at my watch.

The moment it all started, and ended – 11h01.

 

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Feeling the movements

 

Petra

Petra

Route 90 runs south from Jerusalem. At 390m below sealevel, it is the world’s lowest road and the main arterial to popular resorts along the arid banks of the Dead Sea. If you take a right somewhere down south, it takes you to Gaza. It is also the gateway to two places I need to tick off my list of places to visit – Masada and Petra.

My careful research and planning – although anathema to my husband – didn’t put him off this time. Eschewing the comforts and familiarity of his conference he decided to join me. As I bent over the car-rental contract, his sense of humour waned almost immediately. “Must we DRIVE? How far is it?” My usual, ‘just over the hill’ would not work, so I assured him it was an easy drive on well-marked roads all along the Dead Sea with a stop at Masada and then onwards to Petra. “Why can’t we go straight to Eilat? THAT is where you want to be, isn’t it?” I decided to revert to Plan A.

I reached over for the pamphlets that had been staring at me for a while. I opened the Masada leaflet at the sitemap where it explained the steep hikes and the suggestion of doing it before dawn. The Petra one featured the famous sandstone passage, explaining the 6km walk into, around and then out of the ancient city. I kept the trump card for last – DAILY TRIPS from Eilat described in detail the border crossing and visa procedures to get to Petra. “We are crossing BORDERS?” My suppressed grin must have reflected in my eyes.

 

We were interrupted by the return of the goodnatured rental agent. He chattily warned about the roads littered with ‘ruddur’ before handing over the keys. “It’s the local traffic control, they have ruddur (radar)”, he explained when husband-dearest rolled his eyes and his expression morphed from boredom into disbelief as we followed our friend’s directional wave.

Parched landscape, surrounding the Jordan River, could be seen between overtaking trucks and watching out for ‘rudder’. Stretches of Dead Sea and industrial tunnel farming on the banks failed to entertain my passenger and fortunately before too long Masada appeared. My excitement cooled at the sight of the queues – of people and busses. The place was overflowing.

We pushed on. Masada and the other Dead Sea resorts were left behind as we rushed to get to Eilat before dark. The R90 shimmered in the Negev Desert. I saw the Red Sea before I realised we were near Eilat. My relieved shift in the sweat drenched seat awoke my passenger. “Are we there yet?” We were close, yes. I distracted him by making him the navigator. Pointing to a spot on the upside-down-rental map, I insisted on a central hotel.

After booking in there was enough daylight left to explore our surroundings. A slow walk along a coastline that bordered three old worlds was strangely humbling. Israel, Jordan and Egypt meet at this sea. Eilat was originally a port for trade with Asia and later as a military outpost. Detritus from a tourist boom in the 70s could be glimpsed in torn cushions and faded umbrellas. These were limited to the area closest to the port. Flea markets hemmed the hotels. The latter effected an unexpected upliftment in my husband’s mood. He happily returned to our two star hotel with a variety of souvenirs proudly hooked over his shoulders.

The following morning, crossing into Jordan was an easy affair. There was the normal protocol, permissions and stamps on both sides of the border. Our trust in the system was reinforced when we found our online, prepaid guide waiting on the other side of the customs buildings. I ignored my partner’s sighs that accompanied every “no problem” comment from our guide/driver, fearing a disintegration of my only intention – to make it to Petra and back in a single day.

Petra is an ancient city cut out of sandstone rock – poetically described as ‘the rose-red city half as old as time.’ The trip halfway up the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, took us to the middle of the day. This was against all advice. “Must we WALK? How far is it?” This time it was through the hill. No pacifying with ‘just over the hill’, no avoiding the sun and no turning around.

My husband looked longingly at the horses and carts dusting the pathway to and fro with overweight tourists. Our guide sensed my determination and strolled purposefully towards a dark narrow gorge – aptly named Al Siq (The Shaft). A barren sandstone channel with streaks of colour, it was only 4 meters wide.

The easy way in and out

The easy way in and out

Absorbed in the geological and archeological treasures, I forgot about heat, exhaustion and my suffering partner. The Al Khazne (The Treasury) facade that has captured the imaginations of so many explorers, poets and moviemakers appeared at the end of this symbolic birth canal. It trembled in the heat, but that did not diminish its magic. Its magnificence was palpable. Brave tourists with tripods at its foundations were dwarfed. I stood still. I let the trail move past me. It was worth it.

As part of the guided tour and as an essential midday escape, we were led into burial caves that occupied the opposite wall. Colourful hollows that housed the dead. The space filled up with hats, sweating tourists and cameras – very alive. My moment of meditation dissolved and, like herd animals we stayed close to our guide. “These were used as burial sites. People lived on the other side, but this was sacred.” Rolling eyes and a sigh from my husband confirmed his total boredom. From one of what was obviously a group of Americans, a hand shot up, “What kind of people did they bury here?”

Houses and Tombs alike

Houses and Tombs alike

 

Only Dead People were buried...

Only Dead People were buried…

 

It would have been one of those passing historically insignificant comments, never to be acknowledged or remembered, if it wasn’t for our guide’s reaction. His brows shot up, which made his eyes huge. He sucked his breath in sharply, shocked. “Only dead ones.”

As I retreated to bury my giggle, I bumped into my husband. Hugging him for support, I felt his body shook with inward laughter. His pinched face did the unleashing. We both burst out laughing.

Husband’s sense of humor was intact.

Petra was breathtaking.

And somewhere on the edge of the Judaea Desert was Masada on ice.

 

Petra Ticked

Petra Ticked

A Rite.
 
Beatrix is a rite.
Her birth was my rite of passage.
Beatrix over three weeks

Beatrix over three weeks

  
It is not the meaning of her name,
it is the meaning of her existence.
 
 
She now belongs to my clan
And I am her Ouma
 
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She is pretty, pink and petite.
She is a good combination of father and mother.
 
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She is clever, aware and present.
She is fierce in her demands for the basics
She is fragile in her perfect innocence
 
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Her toes curl and twinkle when I kiss her feet
and her skin crinkle in tiny goosebumps when my old fingers gently stroke
 
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She makes me smile when she cries and she makes me cry when she smiles…
 
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Winnie the Pooh must have known Beatrix when he wondered about the smallest thing that takes up the most room in one’s heart.
 
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I have moved into that golden phase of life called Grandparenthood
because of Beatrix Anna Mclachlan
 
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Magical Taj Mahal

India – symbolic of an onslaught on all the known senses.

 Chennai and Delhi (new and old) whirred past in three days of snail traffic. The remaining rules of the streets were dictated by the size of vehicle and by sudden urges of any holy cow. Intersections became battlefields where raucous onlookers would surround the warring parties.

Within this human-transport-device-cow milling mass I observed a sequence of events that piqued my curiosity. On the outskirts of a warzone, frowned faces collected what seemed like money, from eager bystanders. This was accompanied by shrill voices in surreal surround sound. Impatient drivers blasted away on an array of hooters; cows howled for their offspring; agitated vendors shoved for another sale while a wrestling match developed between two drivers or a driver and a pedestrian or maybe even two friends. The squabbling went on for ages as the current we were stuck in stuttered past and beyond before I could witness who the victor was.

Intersections and loaded buses

Intersections and loaded buses

Our taxi-guide nodded in a peculiar way (like those dogs in the back windows of cars) in appreciation of my enquiry. He turned down the volume of booming sixties music to reply: “They are betting on the outcome. Like gambling, you know? It’s tradition and some extra income, and all. Everyone does it – all the time”. His explanation confirmed the regularity and ordinariness of the intersection-wars. All the while his earnest eye-darting to the rearview mirror was accompanied by the constant head-bopping.

Streets, roads and all spaces...shopping

Streets, roads and all spaces…shopping

 

In between intersections our line of outdated cars and basket-bikes moved slowly enough for me to study the pedestrians. The sidewalks became streams of human ants busying to and fro in bright garb, stopping briefly for exchanges of dirty money wrapped in kerchiefs for the on-the-go street curry. Whiffs of danya, cloves, turmeric and saffron (the black market type) blended with fumes of progress. The smell of poverty clung to the air that carried incense and curry. My lungs and nose revolted against the unfamiliar mix. Fortunately an innate tolerance and sense of adventure helped my senses (and me) to rapidly adjust.

I was looking forward to visiting the marble white Taj Mahal. Away from the screaming colors of the ubiquitous saris and smells of spice infused air; to a place of meditation and soul restoring. Head-bopping-guide-driver confirmed that this was a quiet place of worship and peace. “Built in the 15th century, dedicated to the third wife of a shah, yes”, he said. “She was a Persian princess who died in childbirth of her 14th child”, he added in his matter of (everyday) fact way. The rest of his story droned on while a vivid, but sad picture of a modern day Princess of the people occupied my mind.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana 

 

On a tour that touched the world, but a lone figure on a bench, Diana perched in typical stance with the mausoleum as backdrop in this over publicized photo. I wondered if she found magic there? I wondered if the staged emptiness of the gardens around the Taj Mahal echoed her emotions? I wondered if the pool reflection of a clear sky mirrored the blue of her eyes? I wondered if she understood a love capable of devoting a temple as the one behind her?

We arrived at Agra, miraculously still in one, albeit, dusty piece. The road was not that long. It was just that slow. Yielding respectfully when Brahman crossed the road (the cattle, not the caste). Dodging dangling passengers from groaning buses, from and to unpronounceable places. Waiting patiently for traffic jams that uncoiled in unimaginable masses of more noise, creatures and gestures.

Holy and happy

Holy and happy

 

Back in the air-conditioned hotel the concierge dutifully spelled out the plans for the next morning. Stabbing with his pen at the travelling brochure he deflated our enthusiasm with: “It is a religious holiday tomorrow”. Before the consequence of this announcement could make sense he trundled out the words I dreaded to hear: “There will be plenty devotees from the countryside. Everybody in India must visit Taj Mahal at least once. Very pleasant. You will see. Please be on time.” Our exchanged glances were censored before they could be translated.

The next morning, buses deposited us amongst more people and food. Tickets and body searchers helped to slow the procession towards the shrine down to a crawl, (so much for being on time). When we finally got into the gardens and saw the monument for the first time for real, the glamour was dulled by flashes from millions of cameras and the equally dazzling smiles of zealous posers. Even so, my sixth sense intuited the subtle undercurrent of magic.

 

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

 

We followed the human serpent. We rolled across the garden paths, coiled up the stairs and watched its other end emerge on the opposite side. Like the omega – in shape and in continuance. We glided over the cool marble and slid down into the shadowy recesses of the tomb. We were carried forward on a stream of chanters and I found myself slipping into the lull of mass hypnosis.

It was due to this altered state of mind (I told myself afterwards) that people appeared friendlier. We were stopped for photographs and autographs(?!). One photo on the stairs leading into the subterranean chamber, ‘with my daughter and wife, please’. A picture to be posed for in front of the small cemetery gate, ‘for our hanty and huncle who are too old to travel, thank you’. One more with a little girl all pink and shy, for her birthday.

 

For my wife, please

For my wife, please

 

One for the family

One for the family with the birthday girl

 

There was magic in the people. Their unsophisticated warmth melted away the exasperation that usually accompanies hordes. Back in the blazing sun their energy mingled with the festivities under the trees and shaded spaces. The inevitable Indian picnic on holidays featured even on holy ground.

Marble base for a picnic

Marble base for a picnic and some prayers

 

Slowly we made our way towards the exit. There we would find a picture-perfect-position our guide promised. Perfect to capture the gold of the setting sun reflected on the marble. Over the heads of the millions, I smiled. “No problem for you”, he cajoled my husband Rob. “You are big and tall, you can see over everybody. The people from the country has never seen a big man like you, that is why they want to take photos back to their villages, to show the others”. Sense surfaced. We smiled, now knowingly, as our sweet talking guide arranged us on the Di-chair, the famous bench that portrayed the sad solitude of Princess Diana.

Flattery will get one anywhere...

Flattery will get one anywhere…

 

After a digital plethora of poses I was asked to remain seated on the bankie. “A request from the people”, our guide tried to comfort me. Flattery proved to take him everywhere and I waved jokingly at the gathering crowd. I smiled at a worried Rob and allowed Mr Smooth to be director of my final pose. “Please hang your head sideways and smile through your hair. They think you are Diana reincarnated.” His eyes rolled towards the crowd.

 

Princess for that one posed moment

Princess for that one posed moment

 

My moment of magic (although in post analytical reality just a creation of Mr Suave), reduced the gold on the marble to a faint memory.

A split second of undeserved recognition and a shared sense of fun completed my Taj Mahal Magic.