Gone to the blogs... by Karen Gray-Kilfoil

Being an animal behaviourist, humane educator and amateur environmentalist, I write articles about dogs, other animals and environmental issues. However I have lots of other interests, so my writing may involve chocolate, singing, books, coffee, dancing, travel, languages and various other topics. There is even some fiction and poetry!

August 2017: Tagging is like territory marking

I don’t mean the hash # type of tagging, but the graffiti kind.

Imagine the scene: A young man (usually it’s guys, I think) slops along the suburban street, Levis hanging low to expose his Calvin Klein trunks. He stops, peers furtively around to see if anyone’s watching, lets his backpack fall to the ground and takes out a spray can. His previous lack of muscle tone is replaced by a brief surge of animation as he shakes the can and then sprays a wiggly pattern on the clean wall. He puts the can back and continues on in his F U manner. He may do this two or three times as he walks through the neighbourhood.

As a dog behaviourist this looks so much like a dog cocking his leg that I cannot avoid drawing some parallels and proposing a theory. What is the purpose of this marking, you may ask?

A dog marks his “territory”, leaving his p-mail for all to see and smell. What does this message convey? Behaviourists say that the position may mean something. In other words, if it’s high up it implies that he’s a big dog, and/or he has youth on his side and/or has very good muscle control. All of these help to maintain a high status, literally. The size of the mark and proliferation may also play a part. Then there are the scents. It is thought that pheromones are transmitted through urine marking, communicating gender, age, reproductive status and various other things.

You would think, then, that a neutered male Jack Russell terrier would be reluctant to leave his mark as it would be a liability. But quite the opposite is true, I have found. The less status a dog seems to have, the more he seems compelled to cock his leg. By the way, female dogs do it too, although they don’t usually use the same posture or do it as frequently. So why do dogs actually cock their legs? Perhaps it’s a way to boost the ego? Perhaps they just need to be acknowledged by other dogs in their neighbourhood?

So, if that’s true for dogs, then perhaps it’s true for the young man spraying tags on walls. Do these guys (and I’m sure there are girls doing it too) need to be noticed, be seen and be heard? Is it a sign that they are not being listened to at home or in the community? Of course there is the rebellious side to it. We all know that teenagers have a need to cross the line and stand up to the older generation, so tagging is a relatively harmless (although very annoying - that’s the point!) way to make a statement. Have you noticed that each tagger seems to have a “signature” and that they appear all over the place , telling their fellow taggers that they have also been there. Spray paint is expensive so don’t make the mistake of thinking it is the low income group kids that do this. Most of the taggers are from middle and high income families, I believe. They often have everything they could want in terms of material goods, but perhaps lack a connection with family or a feeling of worth in the community. That is my theory and it makes sense.

Preventing tagging:
1. If you have a tweenie, teenager or young adult at home, try to spend time each day connecting with him or her. Even if he ignores you or gives monosyllabic responses, keep trying. Try to eat at least one meal together each day. This should be a time for listening and sharing, not reprimanding or preaching.
2. Monitor your child’s pocket money so that you have some control over what he or she is buying. Too much cash is never a good thing. Take an interest in their shopping activities.
3. If your child is independent, and I believe they should be as independent as safely possible, try to keep tabs on where he is at all times. This may mean taking the odd walk around the neighbourhood yourself and popping in on his friends when least expected. Try to keep communication channels open with your children’s friends and their parents too.

What to do if you see tags or taggers:
1. Paint over tags as soon as possible, or they will “breed” more. If the taggers see that their marks disappear quickly in that area, they will soon stop doing it. Tags and litter in a suburb do tend to attract crime as they implies that residents don’t care about each other and don’t notice what’s going on.
2. If you catch a tagger in action, ask for his or her name. You could try talking him out of it, but you are likely to be met with resistance. Take a photo for proof and call the police. Consequences are important for young people. The best consequence is that the tagger has to help clean or paint over tags!

July 2017: What to do about dog poo?

Keep it! What? I’ll explain….

Urban and suburban living is becoming more and more tricky, especially for pet owners, as we try to share limited space peacefully and with as little impact on the earth as possible. Everything you dispose of must go somewhere and we need to be aware of that fact. We all know we should pick up our dog’s poo diligently for hygienic reasons – to prevent flies, smell, disease, dirty shoes , etc. But what to do with it?

Most dog owners put it in a plastic bag in the bin, but what happens after that? It goes to landfill where it takes the plastic up to 500 years to disintegrate and the poo, which could be perfectly good natural fertilizer, is sealed in and unusable. This is obviously not the ideal solution.

Flush it! At first this seems like a better idea and you can buy special attachments to put on your toilet pipe so you can flush pet poo outside. However, with water being a valuable resource, this isn’t ideal either. It uses water, and if you don’t use water you may end up with a blocked sewerage pipe, like we did! Again, where does it end up? Contaminating the sea?

Keep it, using a Bokashi bin. I’ve found this to be the best way to deal with dog poo, so far. Bokashi bins are sealed and sawdust (or a similar mixture) is sprinkled in every so often, so it doesn’t smell. You can put any organic kitchen waste in, including meat, bones, cooking oil, paper and dog poo. It makes fantastic compost eventually, so your garden benefits too. Compost adds nutrients and helps to prevent evaporation, saving water and keeping plants alive.

What about when we walk our dogs? Of course we must pick up their poo, especially on the beach, paths or sports fields. Again the convenient plastic bag is used. But perhaps we could pick up with a paper packet and take it home for the Bokashi bin? That would be nice, but I realise it’s a hurdle too many for most. It’s one I still have to get my mind around. It means taking paper bags and a plastic bag along on walks. If nothing else, just give it some thought…..beyond the plastic bag.

June 2017: In which Suzie gets bitten – a short story

“Did it ever cross your mind that perhaps the reason for you doing this job is because you were bitten by dogs as a child and somehow wanted to fix all other dogs?” he asked Suzie. “Of course not!” Suzie wondered why the question made her angry. She cast her mind back to her latest consultation.

Suzie edged down the entrance hall carrying her metal briefcase, careful not to bump Mrs Viljoen or the walls. Her dog was supposedly a problem, but there was no sign of it.

“Where’s your dog?” she asked Mrs Viljoen. She reminded Suzie of a wedding cake wearing a wedding dress. Suzie was clearly under-dressed in her jeans and sweatshirt with GREECE printed on the front. She loved that shirt as it reminded her of the year she had spent backpacking in Europe.

“Oh, he’s outside.” Suzie sank into a pale puffy lounge chair, opening her case on the plush carpet. Mrs Viljoen flounced to the French doors, flung them open and called “Buster!” A large white Swiss shepherd appeared, slunk through the doors, blending with the décor, and sidled behind Suzie’s chair. She waited. Buster came around to sniff her briefcase contents: a smelly mix of leads, collarsd, dog toys and so on. Mrs Viljoen, apparently comfortable that Suzie knew what she was doing, went to make tea.

Then Buster turned his back showing two bulbous testicles and proceeded to cock his leg into the case. Suzie didn’t move. This dog was trouble! Then Buster strutted out the French doors.

The tea with milk and sugar went down well on an empty stomach.

“So, Mrs Viljoen, what is the problem with Buster?”

“Well, he’s actually a sweet dog, very affectionate and……” she went on and on extoling his virtues.

Suzie noted all Buster’s details like the fact that he was three years old, ate Eukanuba only and went for one walk a week, with the gardener. But Mrs Viljoen was increasingly vague about what the issue was.

Suzie put her mug down on the glass coffee table and got up to go and look outside, hoping somehow to get more information about why she had been called in. Mrs Viljoen floated behind. They stood on the verandah and Buster decided to join them, slinking in between them. Suzie put her hand out to stroke him on his back. The fangs snapped. Big teeth bit down hard on her wrist.

Suzie had a flashback to the time the neighbours’ German shepherd bit her on the chest when she was little. She had been cuddling their pet lamb and the dog was protecting the lamb and attacked her. This time she did not react at all.

“You see! That’s what he always does!” Mrs Viljoen bent over double, removed her stiletto and swatted Buster away shouting “Bad dog! Bad dog!”

Suzie was speechless with shock. Why would a dog bite her when she was trying to help? She loved dogs. Blood dripped onto the pristine tiles. Suzie tried to wipe her arm on her jeans.

“I’ll pay you…” Mrs Viljoen fussed ineffectually. She was trying her best and really didn’t know what to do. The expert had now been bitten. Buster had slunk off to the far corner of the garden.

Suzie did her best to wrap her wrist in her ripped sleeve. Well, that was the end of that sweatshirt. At last she found a voice: “Mrs Viljoen, the problem with Buster is that he is unsocialized and fearful of strangers. He is also unneutered, which means he’s probably being over-protective of you. I'll contact you later, but I need to go and have this sorted out. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the job. " she fibbed. Suzie had never been bitten before. Not since she was a child. Now the blood from the tooth holes was soaking through the sleeve, the red inkblot moving upwards.

Mrs Viljoen fetched Suzie’s briefcase. Heaven forbid that blood would spoil her Conde Nast interior. She passed R200,00 to Suzie, the fee she had quoted. Suzie's embarrassment was overshadowed by shock. She started her car with her left hand. Her right arm was numb now. She had to admit she was angry with Mrs Viljoen. Why hadn’t she warned her? On the other hand it was stupid not to have found out what the dog’s problem was before she started.

She had no medical aid and no doctor, and now this! The only option was the public hospital. Luckily the R200,00 covered the damage: no stitches, but dressings and a heavy course of antibiotics.

As she unlocked her kitchen door Jojo and Canter greeted her enthusiastically as usual. But Suzie couldn’t bring herself to cuddle them. The canine race had betrayed her, again.

Suzie admitted: “I suppose it could be that I felt I had to compensate for the dogs that had betrayed me in my childhood. But this particular case taught me a valuable lesson: to find out what the dog’s problem is before doing the consultation!”

April 2017: Praise song for Scott Alexander Gray

(written for my son on his 21st birthday)

He was the cub-kitten writhing in play
Practising his fighting skills
To be grown up one day
He survives

He is the cat, tumbling and grabbing
Trees, oceans, mountains, sky
The universe his playground
Going deep and going high

He is the leopard in his own space
Serious about being himself
Fierce independence on his face
A solitary hunter

He is the leopard that leaps and turns
Whether in play or even a fight
Sometimes devious, silent
To get what is right

He is the leopard with a gleaming coat
Used to best advantage
A photographer’s delight
Beauty and camouflage

He is the leopard waiting and working
With persistence he seeks precision
Eventually he reaches his goal
The ultimate joy is ignition

He is the leopard that stalks
Then pounces, then holds
Measured like music
As his forefathers told

He is the leopard with a need for speed
Quick over distance and off the mark
Speed for fun
When there’s a spark

He is the predator with a temper
Terrifying in anger, darkly vengeful
Quietly threatening
Righteously powerful

He is the leopard that loves
Tender and caring
Thoughtful, when he thinks
Loved by many, a blessing

He is the cat that comforts
Listening to friends in distress
One with the crowd
Funny and selfless

He is the leopard that has succeeded
Many are his kills
Success blends with happiness
Proud of himself and his skills

He is the leopard of the future
Blending with the trees
Moving with purpose
May he go forward with ease

May 2017: Pollsmoor Dreams - a short story

“What is your dream?” Suzie asked. Tina looked at her blankly. Had she never had a dream? The tattooed hand twitched like it needed a cigarette. Suzie tried not to stare at the scars on her wrists. Tina’s eyes flicked to find support from one of the other young offenders in the courtyard, but they were busy with the other volunteers and their dogs.

“If you could be or do anything in the world, what would it be?” Suzie wasn’t going to let it go. It was one of the questions inmates had to answer when they joined the prison dog programme. And Suzie knew not to suggest anything, as that would make it too easy.

“OK, let’s answer the other questions first. How old are you, Tina?”

“Sixteen.” She should be in school, not prison.

“Have you had a dog before?”

“Ja, a house dog, but my daddy shot him.” Just like that she said it, like she was stating her shoe size. Suzie swallowed.

“What was his name?”

“Rubbish. I found him on the dump.”

One question Suzie would never ask was what crime Tina was in for, although sometimes it came out, one way or another. Suzie knew all the young women in the rehabilitation programme were there for the long term, like eight years, so their alleged crimes were serious, like murder or assault. No use asking them anyway. You never knew if they were lying and in any case it didn’t help to put another label on them.

Tina’s shaven head and missing teeth made her look boyish and Suzie wondered if she’s been in a gang, perhaps a male gang. Tina’s eyes avoided Suzie’s, but surreptitiously darted to her cell mates as if Suzie was a threat. Perhaps she was. Someone who was trying to breach the tough walls Tina had built around herself.

“OK, so let’s go back to that first question, Tina. What is your dream? Perhaps when you leave prison one day?”

Tina looked down and mumbled “To be a good mother.”

Doing the maths, Suzie tried not to show her surprise. “Oh, you have a child?”

Quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear, Tina confided “A two year old boy. My auntie looks after him.”

“And his name?”


October 2016: Himalayan Trek

10 October – Yak Kharka to Thorung Phedi
Overnight the landscape has been transformed from desert to snowscape – exciting, beautiful and somewhat frightening! I can see this through our curtain-less window. A bare concrete room with a narrow bed each is what you get. Snow is pretty, but also cold, slippery and obscures paths and markings.

Strangely I feel full of the joys of spring this morning, despite my close encounter with AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and I’m hungry, which is a good sign.

While walking yesterday I started to feel awful with a migraine and nausea. Paul took my backpack for the second half of the day, on his front as he had his own on his back. All I wanted to do was lie down, which I did as soon as we found a room. I couldn’t even eat the soup Paul brought me for supper. I knew things were serious when Paul and John sat in our room and we discussed our options. They were 1. To walk over Thorung La pass at 5am (if I felt better and we all felt up to it); 2. To walk half way up the pass to Thorung High Camp (if I felt better); 3. “Descend, descend, descend” by walking back the way we had come. The last option could happen at any time if my condition deteriorated, even in the middle of the night. We had decided to stick together no matter what.

On our way, while I was already feeling grim, we had met a single man and a family of four, all of whom were descending due to altitude sickness. We also saw two helicopter rescues, so going back was a real option. Reluctantly at midday I had taken Diamox, the medication for altitude, and again when we arrived at the guest house, along with Panado, so we all hoped they would do the trick.

After a few hours’ sleep I thought I felt a bit better. Then as it got dark it started snowing and all decisions had to be shelved till the morning. It was a long night of getting up to drink water and to stagger outside to the toilet every few hours, but I have recovered, thanks to Diamox and Panado! The gruesome details must be noted for the record: The toilet procedure was an arduous one as one had to put on more clothes and boots (snowing outside), walk to the toilet cell and then perform the task of squatting and aiming at the hole in the floor, with a still sore broken foot. Add to that that both altitude and Diamox cause one to urinate more than usual. Strange dreams are also a common symptom of altitude, but at least I knew I was alive.

I thought I heard other trekkers leaving before sunrise this morning and the snow is only a few centimetres thick, so let’s see…. More decisions to be made when Paul and John wake up.

11 October – Thorung Phedi to Thorung High Camp
We set out at 9am uphill to Thorung High Camp. We had decided to take it easy and not try to go all the way over the pass, so we left later than most other trekkers.

I felt a bit delicate, like one does after a migraine, but was somewhat strengthened by oat porridge for breakfast in the dismal dining room. The views were stupendous, between heavy breathing, of snowy Himalayan peaks. We even saw blue sheep, a sort of wild goat, and some circling birds of prey.

Luckily we got the last room available at High Camp. Some later trekkers had to return to Thorung Phedi due to “no space at the inn”. It was the only time John had to share his room, but it happened that we knew the Aussie, Mick, who arrived on his own.

I hadn’t washed for a couple of days now, so Paul and I decided to order a bucket of hot water, heated on a gas stove and costing 100 Rupees. It was an experience I will never forget. We were directed to a corrugated iron shack with a concrete floor and shown where the pipe of cold water came down off the mountain (to dilute the hot water). The pipe was a few metres away from the shack, which was a logistical problem. The whole procedure was done in a rush, shivering, swearing and giggling hysterically. It was below freezing and the hot water didn’t help, but we did get cleaner and felt a bit better. I wouldn’t recommend it. A wet wipe wash under a blanket is a better idea.

12 October – Thorung High Camp to Muktinath
The important news, now that we’re back on WiFi, is that we made it over the pass this morning! I can call myself a mountaineer now – slippery ice, shuffling along half a step at a time, heavy breathing and all! Now at Muktinath revelling in warm water and other luxuries. I’m celebrating our summit over Thorung la today with a beer and a yak steak. No not “The Yak”. Another one that apparently fell off the mountain, as the locals are not allowed to kill or eat them. Very odd that so many fall off the mountain. John shared the beer with me, as they only have pints, but not the steak! It was a day never to be forgotten, perhaps the hardest day of my life!

We were up at 4.15am and on the path by first light, along with hundreds of other trekkers. It had snowed lightly again during the night at Thorung High Camp, so it was freezing and inhospitable as only a “hotel” in the high Himalayas can be.

Dinner the night before had been an interesting experience, with crowds of other trekkers from all over the world. We sat at huge communal tables with a view of the mountains on three sides and a fire to keep us all warm. The hard part was going to bed early, as the rooms were ice boxes. If it wasn’t for the extra blanket that another trekker kindly offered, the hot water bottle that I ordered from the kitchen, and wearing thermal underwear and most of my clothes, I think I would have died of hypothermia. Another night of regular visits to the squat toilet, staggering carefully on a jagged stony path, built that way to prevent slipping on the ice. And again thank Buddha for the Diamox and Panado for keeping the headaches and nausea at bay. By now we were all feeling some effects of high altitude and it was the highest we had slept.

The path had been trodden by earlier trekkers so the snow had re-frozen into ice, making it terrifyingly slippery for me. Before we even started walking I slipped and fell hard on my bum, so I was already unnerved. So much for Vibram soles! By now I had two trekking poles, which helped, but I noticed some of the other trekkers had crampons, which would have been nice. I would literally “freeze” on the path, too scared to carry on in case I slipped down the mountain. At one time a young European trekker, irritated by my slow progress, held my backpack and said “Walk!” I did, and then he suggested I walk next to the path on the snow, which I tried while he passed me. “Thank you” I managed. It was a good tip.

Walking, or shuffling in my case, at high altitude is a very mindful thing. You can only go slowly due to the lack of oxygen, but of course people who are used to high altitude and/or fitter can go relatively faster. Paul and John were ahead of me most of the time and I found myself in my own world, putting one boot in front of another, five or 10 steps, then breathe, two, three. The madness of it struck me every now and then when I looked up to see the glaciers and sheer rocks that surrounded us. I vowed never to go to that height again. Humans aren’t meant to do that!

Frequent photo stops helped to calm the nerves and the breathing. It was awesomely beautiful, in an “end of my life” sort of way. If I died there I would be happy, I thought.

I “froze” again on another tricky section and two local horsemen, trailing ponies, took my arms and frog-marched me along to an easier section of the path . “Namaste. Thank you.” With each plod the air got thinner and breathing heavier – up, up, up. Sometimes I could walk for 20 steps easily and then it would get hard again. “It comes in waves” Mick encouraged from behind me.

The ponies and handlers hung around at resting points, like tow trucks, saying “Taxi?” when they saw me. I obviously looked like I wasn’t going to make it. I was once tempted and asked what it would cost to take me what turned out to be the last 300m to the top. “5000 Rupees” (About R750), a huge amount by Nepali standards. But I was determined to walk all the way up.

Paul and John managed to hang back and wait for me so we could all get to the summit together. We could see the thousands of flapping prayer flags on the horizon between two snowy peaks. The wind which we had been warned about was extremely chilly. I felt two hot tears welling in my eyes, under my sunglasses. This may have been a stupid adventure to attempt, but the relief and joy of seeing the top overwhelmed me, in a dulled by altitude sort of way.

We linked arms and tried to sing “Shosholoza” as we “sprinted” to the finish. There was no-one to see this feeble attempt. Except, lo and behold, James, our American friend! We hadn’t seen him for a couple of days so somehow he had overtaken us. Brain freeze, and rest of body freeze, set in as we went about the business of taking photos and videos. We took turns posing in front of the sign with the altitude clearly marked: 5416m above sea level! That is even higher than Everest Base Camp. Then the Aussie, Mick, and Korean girl, Tru, stumbled up. We did a silly happy dance, Tru and me, and took a couple more photos with my camera. Paul’s and John’s cameras had stopped working due to the cold. Then we saddled up as quickly as possible to start the long descent.

On the way down the barren rocky slopes Paul found the increasing oxygen gave him energy to speed up, but John and I somehow couldn’t go as fast as we would have liked. Looking back on it my theory is that Diamox had dehydrated our muscles, making it hard to lengthen strides and speed up. The first little settlement we came to, eventually, cheered me up considerably. Not only was there a sociable group of happy trekkers and a St Bernard puppy, but they served hot apple pie. I tucked in happily!

Arriving in the oasis-village of Muktinath was pure relief. Every muscle and joint ached and I looked forward to a day’s break from trekking. It had been a long day, over 10 hours of walking, but an adventure of a lifetime. And I can recommend the beer in Nepal, especially Everest. It’s definitely the highest we’re going to go, ever! There’s only 50% of the oxygen up there compared to sea level. I cannot describe how debilitating it is. All downhill from now. Tomorrow I may try walking without the sticks.

July 2016: Copraphagia in Puppies (When puppies eat poo!)

Coprophagia is relatively common in puppies, especially German shepherds and retrievers. It is often just a phase they go through after leaving the litter, perhaps due to learning from the mother dog (They often eat their puppies' poo. ) or perhaps out of curiosity. They usually grow out of it. It doesn’t do any harm, but do deworm and vaccinate your puppy regularly, just in case. Some puppies eat other dogs’ poo, some eat their own and some eat both! Many dogs eat cat, horse and other animal poo, which is normal, if not done too often. If you are really concerned about the problem, here are some other causes and solutions.

Diet could be a possible cause of this behaviour. Are you giving the right quality (good quality puppy pellets), variety (can add small amounts of healthy titbits, grated apple, carrot, vegies, brown rice or uncooked large meaty bones for interest) and quantity (measure the daily ration of dog food according the weight of your puppy)? You can try changing pellets or a raw food diet if you think this will help, but do it over a week or so, not suddenly.

Digestion: If the feeding is all OK, then you could consider that your pup may not be digesting its food properly, which may cause his/her faeces to smell and taste like food. Have your pup checked out by a vet if you suspect this is the case. You can try adding a tablespoon of plain yoghurt and/or tiny amounts of pineapple or pawpaw to one meal a day, as this helps to digest the food. The pawpaw/pineapple apparently also makes the faeces taste bad. You can get probiotics (also in yoghurt) and digestive enzymes (bromelaine & papaine) in the form of capsules as well. Ask your vet.

Attention-seeking may be a contributing cause. If the pup finds that sniffing or eating poo gets a reaction from the humans, this may reinforce the behaviour.

Ignore the behaviour: Don’t look at your pup, or shout or react at all. Just walk away and ignore your puppy. You can try to distract your pup by calling it away with a treat, rewarding the puppy for coming to you.

Hygiene: Clean up poo as soon and as often as possible. But not when puppy is looking as he/she may think you want the stuff and may compete with you for it. If pup turns around and eats its poo straight after doing it, then try to call him/her away with a tasty chewy toy or treat and, while it’s eating that, quickly pick up the poo.

Breath fresheners: Get some dog mints, breath fresheners or chewies to give your puppy after it has eaten faeces. There are also recipes online to make your own. This is for your benefit, to hide the smelly breath.

I would not recommend lacing the faeces with anything bad as some dogs get to like pepper, chilli powder, or whatever it is. It could also make digestive problems much worse.

January 2016: Bitter-Sweet Italy

Dark scented grains
Of a holiday with the girls.
Panties drying in hotel rooms,
Few frilly.
Delicious men chaff us young again,
And footloose.

Bones of monks adorn
The walls and ceilings,
Like crema on espresso,
Transient, but tasteful. We sip
The Cappuccino pleasure of being away,
Yet present.

Tired boots laugh at mud.
Which direction is lost?
A sheepdog barks,
while sheep are sheep.
Pigs and fowls share open spaces, so hunting dogs growl
Behind prison gates.

Hard-crusted rolls
With cheesy fillings.
Warm black figs savoured
from a village garden,
Stolen peels evidence of our passing.
Distant gunshots jar.

Another village percolates
In the distance.
The afternoon waiter
Takes our order,
While photo-posing. Coffee for three,
Hot chocolate for me!

January 2016: Kisii Stone Egg

Her pale sticky fingers excite my cold skin.
The boy grabs and weighs me.
Perhaps a status symbol, or a weapon.

Mommy compares my markings
To others on display.
Daddy pays. No haggling.
My maker is happy, my job done.

Now on the mantle piece
With the glass elephant and wooden sheep,
We watch them ooh and aah over their gifts.

Like shiny African wives, babies born,
We ache and wait.
Each deserves to be held,
Every one a treasure.

We shuffle to make space for the new china puppy.
The dust settles.

December 2015: Harnessing Fear - a story in 60 words

Tyson strained and coughed, white hair standing on end, broadcasting his fear. Other end of the leash the usually-gentle woman started to resemble her dog, yanking and reprimanding ineffectually.
“How about we harness him?” the young behaviourist suggested.
“To stop him choking?”
“To calm him, like swaddling a baby.”
Minutes later, harness in place, Tyson sniffed and cocked his leg.

November 2015: Buying Buddhas in Dharamsala

If there’s anywhere in the world you should buy a Buddha statue, Dharamsala in India is probably the most appropriate. It is the home of the exiled Dalai Lama , the figurehead and spiritual leader of the Buddhist Tibetans.

We had arrived in Mcleod Ganj (the upper part of Dharamsala) the day before, after a five hour trip on twisty roads through colourful towns and rural countryside towards the foothills of the Himalayas, sprinkled with early snow.

A healthy Tibetan breakfast and a brisk “kora” around the Dalai Lama’s complex under the belt, I was ready to begin the Buddha-buying adventure. There are at least half a dozen shops and many street stalls selling Buddhist and Hindu statues and religious paraphernalia, run by Tibetans, Indians, Kashmiris and others. Our tour leader, Erika, had suggested a shop owned by Tibetans which supported a Tibetan children’s home.

I waited for the shop to be relatively quiet, apart from the all-pervasive piped melody “Om Mani Pedme Hung”. Strange how it didn’t become irritating, despite its repetitive nature. Buddhas of various sizes, positions and colours faced me from the shelves, all with that angelic look that only the Buddha has. It was all a bit daunting. How could I choose only one, when they all wanted to go home with me? It was like selecting a dog at the SPCA.

Luckily Erika had advised me to keep an open heart and mind and assured me that the right one would “speak” to me. As if in a trance I padded into the back room of the shop where even more Buddhas meditated in rows. There in a corner on the lowest shelf sat a clown-coloured Buddha. He was unusual and I didn’t know exactly why, except for the garish colours which attracted me. Most of the other Buddhas were gold in colour and I recognised some of them as “Buddha of Compassion”, “Guru Rinpoche” or “Sakyamuni”, but this one was blue with a red robe and held a potplant in one hand and a branch in the other. “Medicine Buddha by Nepalese artist” the shop assistant explained. I knew nothing about this Buddha or even Tibetan medicine. However I’d been a subject of Tibetan ear acupuncture a few days before and it seemed very effective.

“I’ll take him.” I was told that negotiating a better price was not the done thing, when buying a religious artefact, so I paid the high price, knowing that at least some of the money would go to a worthy cause. My Catholic grandmother may have been a little surprised to know what her inheritance was being spent on. The Buddha’s face was carefully wrapped in a white cloth and he was handed over in a turquoise fabric bag. We saw no plastic bags in India.

The next part of the process was to take him to be consecrated, which means filling him with many tiny scrolls, incense, and other sacred substances. I followed directions around the block, along the next road and up some grimy stairs between a restaurant and a shop, stepping over a beggar in the gutter. I puffed up two flights of narrow steps to a doorway closed by a fabric curtain, indicating the presence of monks. Entering the dark room I became aware of two monks sitting cross-legged on a low platform eating a simple meal. They seemed to live in this room. Around them were cupboards holding Buddhas in various stages of repair and drawers containing the means of filling them.

Apparently “mantras” or prayers are printed on paper, rolled up tightly and covered in red fabric or paper. The scrolls come in various sizes, for the different size statues, and I guess different mantras are used for different Buddhas. The brass bottom of the Buddha is removed, the goodies inserted, with some sort of ritual, and the bottom replaced and glued. For a small fee, which they assured me goes to the nearby monastery, these monks complete this specialized task.

Erika had arranged for us to have an audience with the Dalai Lama the next day, and this included having any special objects blessed by him. I hoped to have my statue blessed. The monks agreed that I could fetch my Buddha early the next morning.

Having collected my Buddha and paid the monks, I decided to pop into a place signposted “Tibetan Doctor and Astrologer” to find out more. The astrologer turned out to be the doctor’s wife and the receptionist. In broken English she asked me to wait on a tidy couch while the doctor consulted an elderly man. It was in Tibetan or I would have known exactly what his ailment was and what was being recommended. Not much privacy here! The doctor, a cheerful man in his forties, dispensed some pills out of large glass jars, along with instructions. At last he sat down next to me and chatted in good English about his courses in Tibetan medicine. He translated the Tibetan name I’d been given at a monastery and I bought his book “Basic Concepts of Tibetan Medicine”.

Before meeting the Dalai Lama we spent the required hours in anticipation, patiently enduring the security measures needed for this to happen. Our Buddhas , scarves, mala beads and other objects were placed on a special tray, Buddha’s faces uncovered to meet the famous monk.

And he did not disappoint us, spending time talking to us, holding some hands, joking amiably and being photographed. Lastly he blessed our special objects by sprinkling them with holy water. I felt like I was being blessed.

Amidst grins and some tears of joy our Buddhas were collected, masked again, to travel to their new homes in Africa. But first my Buddha had to be specially packaged. The shop where I’d bought him had offered to do this, along with providing a certificate of authenticity. The young Tibetan lady spent what felt like ages performing this task, while I anxiously waited to go and pack my bags at the hotel. First she performed some ritual at the back of the shop; then she wrapped methodically with newspaper and sticky tape; then a silent prayer; then bubble wrap and tape; then another prayer; then a final layer of newspaper. She then gave me a tiny black seed to put in my luggage. The now quite large and heavy lump was carefully lowered into the fabric bag, with the certificate and verbal assurances that it would not be stopped by customs or security, if I packed it in my main luggage, with the seed. The magic seed would protect him.

And it did! With nothing to lose, I trusted the process and my blue Medicine Buddha arrived without incident or query. He sits humbly contemplating my garden at the tip of Africa and the mountain beyond. Not the Nepalese Himalayas , but none-the-less a comfortable home where he is respected and loved. And my journey into Tibetan medicine has only just begun.

March 2015: "Blown away by Books" festival

For a town known for its mother grundies, there were certainly many shades of grey hair at the "Between the Covers" discussion about erotic fiction, with authors Diane Awerbuck, Paige Nick, Joanne Hichens and Helen Moffatt. I learned that this genre of fiction is not new, although it is experiencing a resurrection. The talk was interesting, funny and at times a little "below the belt", but that was to be expected and indeed was necessary to get some of the points across.

I was very excited to see that the "Blown Away by Books" festival wasn't only attended by the "nearly dead", but also a good smatteringof the "newly wed" and many between and beyond those stereotypes of our valley. Not only do many young people read, but there are some who also write, for example Sonwabiso Ngcowa, an ex Fish Hoek High School learner who lives in Masiphumelele. He is now writing a book with Melanie Verwoerd. In their discussion "South Africa then and now" Sonwabiso, Melanie, Mark Gevisser and Ben Turok gave some insight into parliament, post apartheid politics, building bridges and what all the fuss is about UCT's statues.

Reading comic books is also reading. The exhibition of this pop culture phenomenon called "Cosplay and Get Graphic", along with some of the authors and artists, was fun, fascinating and inspiring. There were even some live comic book characters walking around! Most of us "older generation" remember reading comic books as children, even if our parents banned them, as mine did. Technology is often blamed for the decline in reading, as comic books were in my day, but it is heartening to see how technology has been employed to enhance this art-literature form.

"Crime and Wine" was a great way to start the festival, with the crime scene taped onto the floor and crime-related props to set the stage. It turned into a hilariously entertaining banter session between three South African crime writers, Mike Nicol, Michele Rowe and Andrew Brown.

The festival included other events at Fish Hoek, Simon's Town, Ocean View and Masiphumelele Libraries.

Being a regular at the Franschhoek Literary Festival each year I can honestly say the events I went to in Fish Hoek were as good, if not better,than any I've attended at Franschhoek. Famous local authors are worth listening to, even if you don't read much. Well done to The Friends of Fish Hoek Library, Southern Peninsula libraries and False Bay College for a fantastic festival. I hope next year it will be supported even more in and around the far south communities. Who knows, you may have started a tourist attraction!

November 2014: Play review for "A President in Waiting"

The Ulutsha Theatre Company presented the world premier of an ALAS Academy, Creative Ink and Desmond Tutu HIV Youth Foundation Centre Collaboration called "A President in Waiting" on Friday 14'th November 2014 in Masiphumelele.

"A President in Waiting" is a play that revolves around a letter to Nelson Mandela. Khululwa has a question for Madiba...

Poignant, nostalgic, funny and moving, it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and emotions. The remarkable acting talent of this young actress, Khuls Nkatshu, is harnessed and moulded with incisive directing (and some singing and acting) from Amy Leigh Vermaak (ALAS Academy). There is also an off-stage chorus sung by The Amici de le Lune Choir. Almost a one woman show, Khuls takes on the roles of three generations and even a couple of presidents, with convincing skill. Her rapport and eye contact with the audience has the effect of making them believe they know her by the end of the half hour show.

The producer is Earl Mentor, whose spartanly simple props, costumes, scenery and lighting serve to provide the right atmosphere without detracting from the well-crafted monologues and dialogues. Yes, Khuls even manages to play two characters in one scene on a couple of occasions.

The play was written by British swallow Jan Moran Neil (Creative Ink) and cleverly takes the audience on a proudly South African journey of history, intrigue and liberty, with a twist at the end.

Well done for this cooperative production which beautifully illustrates some of the best and worst aspects of our beloved South Africa, past, present and future. It deserves to be shared with all South Africans.

July 2014: Learning to run again - at 50!

I'll be 50 at the end of the year and I don't know what possessed me to go and do a 5 km parkrun a couple of months ago. My intention was to walk it. I knew I could walk 5 kms in under an hour, but my dog and I got so excited that we ran a lot of it and I actually enjoyed it.

I've had to remember how to breathe when running. I'm not much of a meditator (can't sit still for long), but I do know that breathing is important for running, like it is for meditating. Running can be a form of meditation too. My dad taught me about breathing when I was in primary school, the last time I ran , other than for a bus or train. Incidentally my dad still runs half marathons in his seventies.

My method of breathing is to breathe out for more steps than I breathe in. Breathing out is more important as you need to get rid of the carbon monoxide and make space for more oxygenated air. Breathing in is automatic, but out can be more conscious. So my usual rhythm is to breathe out for 3 paces and in for 2 paces. As I get more tired I breathe out for 4 and in for 2. I also try to keep my chest lifted and not let it drop when I breathe out. In other words I breathe out from my belly, another meditation trick. Concentrating on my breathing really helps me to keep going, even when I am walking for sections of my run.

I've now done 4 parkruns and my personal best is 36 minutes! Who would have known?

July 2014: The Elevator Story

"This really is a bizarre job" I thought as I stood in a stuck lift with an elderly lady and her dog. Mrs Grumpy was almost stone deaf and her dog, Misha, was a sweet fluffy toy poodle. I had gone to visit Mrs Grumpy to help her with her young pooch, who was really no problem at all, and I suspected she really wanted company and to talk about her little companion. It was not an easy consultation and eventually I persuaded her to take Misha out of the flat for a walk.

On the way back the lift shuddered ominously and ground to a jerky halt between floors. All Mrs Grumpy could say was "It happens all the time", which somewhat explained why she was reluctant to go out. It was in the days before cellphones and there was no alarm or panic button. My client had no idea what to do next. So I went into adventure mode, determined to get us all out alive, and before lunch time.

It wasn't too difficult to force the doors open. (I was quite strong in those days.) The opening revealed a blank cement wall, but the top quarter opened to the next floor. I climbed up and managed to wriggle onto the floor above. (I was also quite agile in those days.) Mrs Grumpy passed Misha to me and then I heaved and pulled her through the gap. It was all over in a few seconds and we were free!

What a rescue! Laughing, we returned to her flat, via the stairs, for a cup of tea and to revel in our near-death experience. Actually it was quite a dangerous thing to have done, but we had made it, and before lunch. "I love it when a plan comes together!"

May 2013: My life with animals - a short biography of an animal behaviourist

Just imagine two black chunks of Rottweiler thundering towards you, muscles rippling and saliva dripping from their bared canines. There I stood at the end of the driveway, my finger paralysed on the buzzer that had unleashed these monsters, hoping like hell that the occupants didn't open the remote-controlled gate, thinking I was safely in my car. Nobody in Joburg, not even in the 90s, got out of their car in the street. My animal behaviourist mentor was in the car looking for house numbers up the street. Time went into slow motion as the dogs pounded towards me. While somewhere in my brain I wondered if the gate would hold their weight, a remarkable thing happened. One dog put on the brakes , went silent and did a serious play bow, while the other stopped in its tracks and yawned wisely. Then both looked at me and wagged their silly stumps. It was a turning point in my life. Just by being me I felt powerful enough to tame massive beasts. It was as if the dogs had said "You're good for the job", and I went on to do it for over 20 years.

It actually all started when I was about six years old and brought Big Cat home as a kitten. My dad had a dog called Yoyo, but he didn't approve of my pets. Despite that, I kept bringing home other animals: injured birds, baby squirrels , chickens, snakes and insects. Living in the then-rural Tokai was a paradise for a nature lover, like me. Sometimes one of my animals would eat another, like the time my cat ate my hamster causing floods of tears and much hugging of the bulging feline. I wanted to be a vet, but Mrs Thorburn, my science teacher in Standard 7, put a stop to that when she said I was artistic (but that's another story).

So, after school, I floundered around doing a social science degree, pre-school teaching, travelling, bookkeeping and river-guiding, but only really discovered what I wanted to do on that day in Joburg. Actually all the floundering stood me in good stead for what was to come: running my own business. By then I had been fired twice and hadn't stuck to any job for more than six months, so there really wasn't any other option than being self-employed. I couldn't fire myself!

I was one of about three non-veterinary behaviourists in South Africa at the time and I set about promoting myself to the vets in Joburg. They were happy to pass on all their problem owners to me, I managed to support myself financially and I was doing what I loved. I also started running puppy socialising classes, which was a new concept in the 90s.

Later on I became a founder member of an association for behaviourists, which still exists. I also did three newly-devised courses in animal behaviour at Onderstepoort (University of Pretoria). I am now involved in the running and updating of those courses.

Although I haven't done problem consultations for a few years now, I keep my paw in the animal field at all times. As you may have gathered, I enjoy variety and change so have been involved in various animal-related businesses and projects. For five years I helped run a dog programme for the women prisoners at Pollsmoor Correctional Facility, but I needed to escape after that, although funnily enough it was the staff and red-tape that resulted in the project's demise, not the prisoners. I have just joined the Underdog Project, working with underprivileged "teenagers at risk" to teach them how to train shelter dogs. Paul and I have also recently started an environmental group called Sun Valley Eco Watch, so watch this space!

Paul, our 17 year old son, Scott, and I live with two dogs, two cats, two tortoises and some fish. I suspect my life with animals will continue to evolve , and so will I.

January 2013: African Football

My claim to fame regarding soccer is that I once saw Pelé play. It was at Green Point Stadium in the 70's when my dad took my brother and me to watch a rare "celebrity" match. It was not a very different experience to the one Paul and I had last week, except this was a "real" match between South Africa and Norway and the crowd was a truly rainbow mix of skins, languages and outfits!

What I know about football is dangerous. I still don't understand the offside rule, despite a lot of explaining, but I do enjoy watching the game, especially live. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I find soccer jocks particularly attractive. They're athletic and agile, usually clean-shaven, but with an element of the "bad boy" about them. Maybe that's one of the reasons why I was attracted to my husband and ex-footballer who still maintains that hard-earned physique.

So we made it to the stadium, despite being waylaid at a gay restaurant called "Beefcakes" for an early supper. They let Paul out only because there were queues of other soccer fans waiting to eat. I must say the burger was delicious, as were some of the young waiters.

Besides blowing their vuvuzelas at every opportunity with appropriate tones and tunes, the jokers in the seats behind us kept us entertained with profound snippets like the one ten minutes into the game "Same old, same old, ek sē!" expressing the crowd's disappointment at South Africa's inability to score. Later on in the game it was "Africa KAK of Nations , ek se!" expressing the ever-dying hope that South Africa may do well in the games coming up.

South Africa should have won, but we lost to Norway, who have a population a tenth of ours, were playing on foreign ground and had far fewer shots at the goal. As I am a quarter Norwegian (arguably) I still maintained a smidgeon of pride, but I am after all a South African and I admit that I was disappointed. I must say the mood was a bit depressed on the way out of the stadium.

However, undeterred, the comedy started up again on the train with a character from the Cape Flats who entertained the whole carriage with his "distinction in kakpraat". One of the butt-ends of his jokes was the pale-faced, big-eyed family who were obviously doing this for the first time. They had no reason to be so terrified, but his comments only made them hug each other closer. Most of his jokes were harmless and self-deprecating, with throw-away lines that any comedian would be proud of. He had some of us in tears, we laughed so much.

The way I see it is this: Our national teams should be like our children. When a child fails, loses or makes a mistake, we don't call him names, insult him and kick him out, refusing ever to support him again (or at least I hope we don't in the age of Dr Phil). We should encourage and support a child no matter how he does and the South African public should do the same for Bafana Bafana. (The reason I can say this is that I have a teenage son and I am also old enough to be a mother to each one of the "Boys".) Yes, we may be disappointed and try to give advice (mine being predictably awful), but let's support them however they do. Who knows, our cheers may just give them enough vooma to boost the team's confidence and get that "blérrie" ball in the goal.

Viva Bafana Bafana! Good luck in the Africa Cup of Nations! I just wish we had a game or two in Cape Town, where the fans are plentiful and always bounce back, ek se!

January 2013: Midnight Velvet Chocolate - creative piece

Moonlight oozes into the boudoir. As the clock cracks twelve, the lady of the night unwraps, revealing the mystery. Plunging in with lips, teeth and tongue, she luxuriates in the bitter-sweetness. The squares of confectionery envelop her senses, healing and comforting her spirit. It melts in her cheeks, trickles out of her mouth and drips down her chin, blackening her cleavage like a trail of blood. Her negligee soaks up the saliva and chocolate mixture. She licks the packet, devouring every last crumb, and then bends to suck the velvet, appreciating the taste of decadence for the last time.
"Now I'm ready" she murmurs as she closes her eyes. "Diet tomorrow."

August 2012: Dogs in China

Since Paul and I returned from China a couple of weeks ago the first question most people ask us is "What was the food like?" to which the answer is "It was Chinese!" The next question is often "Did you eat dog?" Being a "sometimes non-practising vegetarian" I've been known to eat roast guinea pig in Peru, rabbit stew in France, camel milk pudding in Jordan and llama in Bolivia, but I draw the (fuzzy?) line at dog and cat meat. Luckily we were never faced with that decision and never saw it on a menu (not that we could always read the menus) and, to our knowledge, never ate it. However I did eat yak biltong (weird) and yak dumplings (delicious!).

The dogs I saw were friendly, mostly healthy-looking and treated kindly by all the humans around them. Most were running free in the streets, which was alarming at first, until I realised they could navigate the traffic much better than I could. There were many breeds, but most common were the little terrier or Pekinese, (of course - Peking is the old name for Beijing), crosses. They could be seen picking through piles of rubbish (1.4 Billion people produce a lot of waste!) or begging from tables at restaurants. They were often given titbits and never chased away.

In the big cities I saw a few dogs being walked on leads and one with sensible shoes on for the hot Beijing streets. I also saw many with their owners on motorbikes and bicycles, sitting quite happily ears flapping in the wind and not even strapped in. One puppy I saw was obviously being taught this skill and was in a cardboard box, strapped to the bike carrier with a hole cut for his head. He didn't look too upset.

Dog training isn't big in China and when I tried to explain that I was a dog trainer they just didn't get it. Having learned a little bit of Chinese I realise it's the ideal language in which to train a dog. It is tonal (5 tones for each sound, each of which means something different) and dogs understand tones much better than sounds on their own. Perhaps I'll try it!

Although I didn't dig into the dog meat industry or veterinary care of dogs in China, I did notice some dogs that were neglected or needed sterilizing (puppies running about). Basic training or serious grooming (matted filthy fur) was also in demand in some cases. While animal rights, along with human rights, are not known as China's strong points, I didn't see any open cruelty and generally liked the Chinese attitude to their animals. I certainly didn't see any dogs that were fearful of being eaten at any minute!

July 2012: Chinese Massage or Chinese Torture?

Today I needed some bodily repairs after nearly a month of travelling and with a long train trip coming up to Beijing on a "hard seat". I am now sitting on the train, having found our seats successfully and settled in. It's very hot and no windows can open.

I had had a fantastic massage in Xi'an by Master Hans who came to our room and did a Chinese version of chiropractic. He was wise and educated and spoke English while he did his work, which included a few painful spots, but mostly involved skilled manipulation of my neck and back. So , I thought I'd try another type of Chinese massage.

Back to the massage this morning. Well, I arrived for my one hour Chinese massage in our hotel and was politely shown a room with a bed and a TV, which was duly switched on to a Chinese channel. This was a first for me - no soft sleepy music - and the TV remained on for the whole massage. Perhaps it was for the masseuse to watch?

The actual masssage was something. If my brain hadn't been paralysed by some mechanism that said this must be good for me and that it was rude and cowardly to back out, I would have screamed and run out of there a few times. She poked, pummelled, pinched, smacked and beat all my limbs into submission and then did the same to my back. As she got deeper into the muscles, nerves, meridians and eventually bones, the pain got worse and then my brain seemed to switch off and accept it and I could relax for just long enough to endure the next session of torture. At one point I burst out laughing as the poking fingers in my thigh caused a sort of ticklish pain that makes you either cry or laugh. It was not the kind of massage you could fall asleep in and she did all sorts of contortions with her body and mine, even lying on top of me at one point. Thank goodness she didn't walk on my back as she was quite a hefty young girl!

When she was finished torturing me I was most relieved, paid my very meagre fee of about R85, and scampered up the stairs. I must say I felt so much better, but I'm not sure if it was the relief of having survived or the actual benefits of the massage. Paul says I look a lot less "beaten" now, and I think my back and shoulder pains are better, so it was worth it. Next time I'll do the foot reflexology instead, though.

The aircon is on and all the food has come out, including the huge bags of sunflower seeds, so we're on our way.

July 2012: Chinese Toilet Training

Toilets remain a morbid fascination of mine when travelling, being such an important part of everyday life. Chinese toilets, like so many things in China, range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Most public toilets are the squat-over-a-hole type, while luckily most hotels and hostels ;(at least the ones that take foreigners) have "western" ones. At most airports and tourist sites they have both types, spotlessly clean and the one or two "western" ones are labelled with a picture or "pedestal" sign on the stall door. Or one can use the disabled one. Flushing of a squat toilet is sometimes a button, sometimes automatic and sometimes non-existant.

Then you get the more primitive squat types with a sort of tiled deep channel or guttter over which you step and into which you aim. There's a large drum of water nearby with a ladle to flush it manually. These are surprisingly clean and smell-free and the waste is washed down the drain, usually into a river or down a mountain!

There's NEVER toilet paper, so you take your own and throw it in the bin afterwards, not in the toilet. If you do it blocks the system - not a good idea in your hotel room. So toilets are smelly to disgustingly stinky and I often wish for a peg to block my nose and do my thing as fast as possible. You can't use a hand as you need both to do your thing.

The procedure required for using a squat toilet, to get into more detail, takes some practise. First you hold the clean toilet paper in your mouth. Then remove your clothing carefully, holding it with both hands to prevent it from getting wet (or worse) on the floor. Then you crouch and aim, trying to hold the squattig muscles in one postion, while releasing other muscles. As I said, it takes time and practise and a few minor splashes (hopefully) to get it right. Also hope you don't get the common Chinese tummy bug because that makes things all a lot more tricky.

Having said all that, there are also some impressively technical toilets in some places in China. At the airport today there was a pedestal toilet with a plastic cover over the seat. When I examined it the instructions said in English "push button before using". Pity I'd already used it! I pushed the button anyway and the plastic cover miraculously slid around as a clean section emerged from the other side. Very clever these Chinese!

Another fancy toilet I came across at the panda reserve had a whole panel of buttons that you could select to massage, blow dry, shower and various other functions that were undecipherable due to bad translation. I couldn't resist trying a few, but without success and was too scared to try the "shower". I was already wet from the pouring rain. (Flush was automatic as you opened the door. ) I used the handsoap and hancreme and blow dried my hair using the unusually functional hand dryer (not the toilet!). I felt refreshed and less like a drowned rat. It's amazing what a good toilet can do!

Oh, and I finally figured out why so many Chinese girls wear short shorts or dresses and extremely high shoes..... Pants and flat sandals are just not very practical when using a squat toilet.

June 2012: A hard day's travelling in China

Sometimes travelling is hard work and a sense of humour is essential to survive the ordeal. Waking at 3.30am yesterday, it took 3 buses, an aeroplane, 2 taxis and some walking in muddy conditions to get to our destination. Admittedly it is probably the most in the "gopse" I'll ever be, being Xiahe (pronounced Sha!Her..., with the H sounding a bit like the Afrikaans G), in Little Tibet, Western China.

Part of the fun is trying to make yourself understood in Chinese, so that you get to the right place at the right time. I even wrote down the name of our destination in Chinese script and walked around a bus station trying to match it with what was written on the buses, Amazing Race-style.

We found ourselves waiting in a local eatery in Lanzhou watching locals gobble and slurp delicious noodles and throw all their rubbish on the floor. Paul struck up a rapport with the Muslim owner (yes, there are Muslims in China) by using his best Chinese AND Arabic and kept going to buy bits of food on display by pointing at them. We eventually figured out how to get a meal by watching and using my phrase book. We had 3 hours to kill, so it wasn't a problem, and we were the source of entertainment for the patrons with our luggage, strange behaviour and looks. In the end the whole tasty meal plus "padkos" (boiled eggs and bread) cost less than a meal at home.

Arriving in Xiahe after a scenic, although nerve-wracking, country bus trip was a relief after 15 hours of travelling, but our Tibetan hotel is great, cheap and walking distance from Labrang Monastery. We're going to be eating, praying and prostrating ourselves (sleeping) for the nextfew days.

June 2012: All dolled up!

The phrase "all dolled up" was invented for Chinese girls. I am a complete fashion disaster here in my sensible footwear, along with the few other Western tourists here in Lijiang. But there are thousands of Chinese tourists, and many of the girls seem to spend their time posing for photos in the picturesque lanes. When we landed in Beijing I immediately noticed the women's shoes - most elaborately and delicately feminine with bling, high heels, platforms, or all of these together. Maybe it's a reaction to their terrible history of foot-binding. And some girls are so made up (like China dolls) and delicate-looking, in Vogue-like hats and flimsy short dresses, that you wouldn't think they may be Kung Fu experts. I'd hate one of those high heels to hit me anywhere! There are also the ultra-modern girls in jeans and trendy t-shirts, but always blingy or bright shoes. Some of the women are dressed in traditional style, multi-coloured and accompanied by at least one young male photographer with a loooooong lens.

Umbrellas are also big here, as we discovered today in a torrential downpour. Luckily we remembered to take the one supplied by our hotel, so we tried the method we saw being used, despite the fact that we were quite wet already. This method involves one umbrella and two people who have to hug one another tightly to stay under it and at the same time prevent each other from slipping on the streaming cobblestones. It was quite fun and I think our giggles provided a few moments of entertainment for the locals - not the first time, I assure you!

June 2012: In a state worse than China...soon

My friend Rona used to say this (and perhaps still does...) when things started going pear-shaped. So we're off to China on Friday for a month of "backpacking" . The reason why this is in inverted commas is that Paul still has a backpack, but I have long since sold out and take an enormous black wheely bin-type suitcase. There is method in my madness and my luggage has been known to travel over deserts, cobble and pot-holed roads, steep staircases and various other questionable surfaces, sometimes not in the way it was meant to, in other words with the help of a strong man (usually Paul). My wheely bin has carried stone buddas, Middle Eastern carpets and Bolivian coca tea back home, among other things. I like to sleep in comfort so I take an old pillow or two to fill my case and then dump them as my purchases take over the space. It works quite well.

The other reason why "backpacking" is not entirely true is that we are a bit beyond slumming it in youth hostels (except occasionally for fun) and have been known to splash out and stay in quite nice hotels on occasion. Our methods range from "on the fly" hotel-searching when we get to the place, which can be arduous but cheap, to internet booking a couple of days ahead. That doesn't mean we haven't planned our journey, more or less. This time we have done quite a bit of homework: reading guidebooks, plotting our route and even learning a bit of Chinese! So here's hoping that we won't end up in a "state worse than China".

My personal intentions with this trip are to drink tea, do TaiChi and QiGong as much as possible and to go with the flow....... I may get to blog a few times, but don't hold your breath. Paul is much more likely to dominate his new travel gadget, the Netbook, so watch his blog for regular updates: www .PaulKilfoil.co.za/2012.aspx

May 2012: Eish! but was Franschhoek good?

When Paul and I were upgraded to the honeymoon suite (ooh-la-la!) at our B & B in Franschhoek, we were convinced we were going to have a good weekend. 22 Van Wijk Street turned out to be central, beyond comfortable and inexpensive.

Franschhoek is ideal for eating and drinking (both coffee and wine), so we did a lot of that, the highlight being dinner at the exclusive La Bon Vivant. Linda and the girls joined us and Paul enjoyed being the only rose among the thorns and actually got a few words in edgewise, despite having to wait ages to eat while we all took photos of the plates. It was like eating paintings, except that it tasted a hell of a lot better! We shared the restuarant with Pieter-Dirk Uys, which means something to someone, I'm sure.

Actually we were there for the Literary Festival and between us partook of many of the talks, debates and presentations that were on offer, between meals, of course. I came home with a list of books to add to my bedside table, two of which stand out. The first was "My Father, My Monster" by McIntosh Polela. He made the whole audience cry when he told us about his tough life growing up in KZN. The other book I bought for Dad: "Eish! but is it English?" by linguistic professor Rajend Mesthrie. He is such an eloquent and likeable man and I loved his sense of humour. I'll read it after Dad. I also managed to get the bolshy Gareth Cliff's autograph for Scott. It says "Scott, you should come to these things, Gareth Cliff"

We're already planning next year's FLF, with or without Scott!

April 2012: I Love Espresso

Thanks go to my beloved husband, Paul, who has made this all possible (the blog and the lifestyle) and wrote this example for me: "It has come to my attention that, contrary to a long and mistakenly held belief, I actually love coffee. This was a bitter pill for me to swallow, as I had relentlessly carped (and sometimes even crapped) at my husband for seven years to stop drinking the stuff. But my schlubb, I mean husband, is an obstinate kippie and kept pouring coffee down his neck despite my best efforts to wean him off. Then I went to Italy with some friends and saw the error of my ways ... Now I slurp coffee, paricularly espresso, at every opportunity; the stronger the better. I would never have written this, but my shrink from beyond the lentil curtain said that I should get in touch with my caffeinated personality, so here I am, getting it off my chest. If you don't agree with this, or think what I've said is a load of rot, then I invite you to take a long walk (a very long walk) off a short pier."

OK, so my blog is going well so far. Managed to steal most of my first one.... The picture is of Paul swinging at Green Point Park recently. We went for coffee afterwards.