Wednesday, 26 September 2012

"But why's the Rum gone?!"

...Because it needed to go. They say that a change is as good as a holiday, and I'm finding they are correct.

Chopped a fair amount of my hair off today (not personally but you know what I mean). That one simple act, added to the fact that I haven't had shoulder-length hair since high school, has put me in a jolly decent mood. Flouncing and bouncing and... what are other -ouncing words? Anyway, the hair feels strange but a lot lighter. It will take some getting used to, but in a positive way.

As for ACTUAL holidays go, I realised last night that I haven't been on a self-paid holiday. My recent travels have all been for work and although in some of them I've been able to see a little of the area I was based in, they haven't really been holiday-ee. Yes, yes, I know I still have to put up the final entries for my travels in Europe. Getting there. Slowly.

Now you may be wondering where I would go on holiday. You also may not be, in which case you may stop reading. I'm generous like that. For those of you (out of three or so readers) that ARE curious, about two years ago my best friend and I had this plan to road trip around South Africa. It didn't happen. And it probably won't happen very soon, but it's something I'd still like to do. There's so much of my magnificent country that I have yet to see. And since I don't have a fella, who better to travel with than a best friend? Rhetorical.

Considering the International percolation pot, I would want to go somewhere I haven't yet been, although Scotland will always be in contention. What got me thinking of all this hulla-buloo though, was Ireland. I have even gone online and had a cursory glance at flight prices. R9k rounded up. That's a fair whack, but man, I'm almost seriously considering it. If I do go though, I don't want to have a rigorously planned journey. I want to take one suitcase, as small as I can possibly make myself pack, and then I just want to wing it. At least, that's how it'd work in my head. In theory I may very well not be that brave.

Perhaps all of us have these moments in our life when we are teetering on the brink of something, our hearts racing, and we wish we could throw our hands in the air, give a yell, and just dive in, dealing with what ever happens as it comes. That's how I'm feeling about Ireland. Plus, thinking of that country makes me remember green eyes and a lilting shivers-down-my-spine voice...

I wonder....

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A plan of action

So it has been decided that I will be doing my PhD. I will not, however, be completing my Masters. Not as such. I will be entering the wonderful world of Upgrading.

Pros: No Masters thesis to write, which means a little less stress and some extra time to get results and do more research.
Cons: Should something happen and I don't complete my PhD, I won't have a Masters either and would have wasted a minimum of 3 years of my life.

Not too shabby considering the alternative: my scurrying around trying to get data reduced in time to have a full set of results, plus writing up, getting through my rewrites and revisions to have my Masters approved before the end of Jan. Ha. Not even sure that would be possible. The Upgrade-way means I have to write a 'short report' showing that I've done enough work for my Masters and that I have an extension plan for PhD and that that plan involves original research etc etc blah blah fishpaste. This is slightly more involved than I was initially lead to believe but still certainly doable.

SO! I am on almost on the path to becoming Dr Knowles. How fancy-schmancy. I wonder how often I'll be accused of being able to help someone in a medical emergency... Sorry folks, I'll be the useless kind, but hopefully able to get air tickets spontaneously upgraded.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Find me ladder for this hole

It now seems to be my turn to try make amends. Though I have no idea what I'm meant to be making amends for. My flatmate and I were getting on really well just before I came back from India, laughing and joking. Even the first day or two seemed good. Yes, I admitted to him I felt like I was nagging a lot because of the state of the flat, and lots of little things etc etc blah blah. But he seemed to take it how it was meant and that's ok. Then I got annoyed (possibly more so than it was strictly rational to be) over an agreement we'd had that fell through. I was pissed about it for a few hours but I sorted things out my side and got over it, like you're supposed to. And since then we haven't spoken. And if that's the reason he is refusing to speak to me, then I'm flabbergasted as to why. I want to fix this but I can't do that if he won't allow conversation. Worried and frustrated. Sigh.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A difficult day

Yesterday was a rough day. I have been thinking that it's about time I posted something again and I looked through my drafts to see what I had in the pipeline. They are all joyous topics with happy rememberances (is that even a word?). And today I just can't bring myself to write them. Joyous is not what I'm feeling today. Perhaps it's the aftermath of yesterday. If it is, I hope I'm being overly dramatic because otherwise I can't imagine how my aunt and cousins are coping today. It doesn't bear thinking about.

As you may know my uncle died last week. Yesterday was his funeral. It was in Joburg which is where most of my extended family live. Since I live in Durban, I am glad that I had the opportunity to be up there. One more thing I can thank work for. Luckily, I had to be up in JHB to give an outreach talk to the students of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Luckily, the ACRU Outreach coordinator is a generous and understanding woman and we were able to make plans that enabled me to leave straight after the talk to be with family the rest of the day, until my flight back to DBN in the evening. So just on that front it was a day of ups and downs but I'm glad I was able to be with my parents and see my aunts, cousins and my grandad.

There are a couple of things that I will never be able to forget about yesterday. One, the way my uncle looked at the funeral parlour. He looked nothing like the man I remember and that's good - it meant seeing him like that didn't affect me because for me it wasn't him.

Two, seeing my grandfather's face in the church during the service. My heart broke for that man. The Oates' are a rather stoic bunch who keep everything deep deep deep inside. To see such raw evidence of his grief made me realise just how far down he is feeling the loss of his son. Not that I expected otherwise, but seeing it is very different from theoretically knowing it as fact.

Three, seeing how well my aunt and cousins bore up in front of all the family and friends. I don't know how they did it. I have such respect for them. They felt the grief and the emotion of the day, they cried, but they were always gracious and handled themselves well. Particularly my aunt, who had to deal with all the well-wishing and sympathy and tears of others. I am related to strong people.

Four, my cousin's eulogy to for his dad. Typical Oates. And it was concise but it said all that it needed to say. It had me alternatively smiling and crying, often at the same time.

Lastly, seeing my mom. The emotional see-saw that she went through that whole day and how she dealt with things just amazes me. I am happy that she was able to say goodbye to her brother and to a certain extent make her peace with what happened. She got to see her sister and particularly her dad. And that she had my dad with her and seeing how they interacted with each other, my dad being there but not overbearing or mother-hen-ing. I am so proud to call them my parents.

Overall I think it was a good service and it helped many to say their goodbyes to Mark. For many others, particularly family, I think there is a long road ahead yet. Basically, it was an emotional day and I cried deeply, felt more than I had expected to. And now I'm feeling washed out. Tired. Quiet and numb.

But now I have to get back to work.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Gone Too Soon

Dedicated to Mark Richard Oates 03/10/1956 - 07/09/2012

In less than a year my mom has lost both her mother and her brother. I am almost glad my gran isn't here anymore, so she doesn't have to go through the grief of losing a son. It's like a bad dream you can't wake up from. I don't really know what to say or how to write this post. I just needed to write. I can't keep staring at the walls of my guesthouse room, mind frozen.

Two weeks ago my sister got married. In retrospect I am now grateful that the wedding happened when it did. My uncle got to see the marriage of his first niece. And he was healthy, and happy and his usual playful self. Two weeks later, and the last time I saw my uncle would have been too long ago to remember clearly. As it is I think back to the day of the wedding and the words of our conversations and our teasing jokes are fading from my mind. Dammit. You never know the moments you're going to want to keep forever. They pass and you think there will always be another. The hard truth is that eventually there won't be. We just always assume that 'eventually' is a long way away.

I've cried my tears for my uncle now, the majority of them at least. Not being with family when I heard was rough, and I think of my cousin in Cape Town who was in the same boat - not close to family, not able to go to them. I don't even know what to say to my family, especially my mom. A friend here in India lent me their phone so I could make a quick call to her. "I love you" and "I'm so sorry" are all I could say. What can you say? What words would help?

There are a few things that I will always remember about Mark Richard Oates. The way he always teased his mom, winding her up, getting her tipsy/drunk whenever he visited. His flashy cars and the way he always wanted/needed the newest things - the day he took me to my graduation ceremony in his Lambo-yellow sports car... The first time he made me a gin & tonic. Heavy on the gin. Sorry Uncle Mark, no matter how hard you tried, I will never like that drink :) The way he could always make my mom smile, no matter her mood...

My uncle was a handsome man and what I like to refer to, lovingly, as full of shit. Cheeky, obstinate, charismatic, hard-arsed, fiercely protective of those he loved. He was my favourite uncle. And now he's gone. Father, Son, Husband, Brother, Uncle, Friend. He is missed. RIP.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

France and Belgium coming soon...

Ok guys, I know I started the World Tripping: Schengen Win! series a few days ago and have now left you hanging (self-aggrandising my blogs, I know). The sequel posts (you can expect two of them - giving each country their own seems fair) are in the pipeline and will be fleshed out and posted soon, I promise.

Having put off writing my PhD application for days....

...I finally have to get down and write scientific stuff rather than blogging. More's the pity.

India Update

Just a quick update on my India visit...

I couldn't get an earlier flight. SAA, you are USELESS with getting back to people. So I will be here for the intended length of stay. And I don't feel too bad about that anymore. Things are looking up a little.

Perhaps I was moody at the start. Whatever it was I am now finding myself able to be friendly to people. My roommate and myself are getting along; she's really quite nice. She invited me to visit her home with her when she leaves in a few days, but I unfortunately don't have time before my flight out. Plus my first roommate (before I left for GMRT) stopped by my breakfast table this morning and we had a quick chat to say hi. Another pleasant individual.

I've been avoiding the food for a while though - not because it's not edible, it is. I just can't eat the same stuff at every meal. I've been having toast and jam for breakfast. The jam is more like raspberry jelly that we get at home. Literally jelly. As in add water to powder and serve with ice-cream, jelly. But it's good. Plus my crackers are running out so I will have to go back to the canteen for dinner at least twice this week. That should be fine. Back to dal and chapattis it will be.

The only issue I have now is my office neighbour who is getting on my nerves. I asked my mom for advice on how to handle the situation and she's given me some good stuff. Hopefully I can get whatever this is nullified soon.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Whoops... My Bad.

I've spent a few minutes having a squizz at other blogs, blogs of strangers, and there is one thing that I notice when I compare mine to theirs....

I talk. 

The average blog I've seen (if it's not purely photos with captions to tell a story) is about 300 words long. Looking at the average one of mine, I'd say it's closer to 800, with some of them going into the 2000 realm. Granted the super long ones are mostly travel stories, but still.

I feel I should at once apologise and say thank-you to anyone who reads this blog on a fairly consistent basis. Sorry for all the waffling and yakking, and thank-you for putting up with it and persevering. To those who happen across this blog, particularly to those who don't know me, if you don't peruse the other posts I don't blame you. Take a coffee to go and enjoy your day.

I've just scanned through all my posts and a pattern emerges. The more frequently I post, the shorter the posts (excluding a travel-trip run). This makes sense to me. When you speak to someone you haven't seen in ages you have a lot to say, but if you see them everyday or almost that, the conversations are shorter, with more highlights rather than a longer "I've got so much to tell you!" vibe.

So since I have no wish to bore people to death or drive you away with yards of words, I will try be more succinct in future. And that may mean posting more often. Though I did warn you at the beginning (if you've followed it from there) that infrequency may be the name of the game.

287 words - score!

World Tripping: Shengen Win! (Orange Days)

[Note: This is the second in a four-part blog - go here for the first entry]

And back on the wagon we get... Where was I? Sleeping if I remember correctly.

Now I tend to organise my arrival to new destinations so that I have time to settle and possibly get over jetlag before I have to work. This means I got to Dwingeloo (that's where ASTRON is) on a weekend, so everything was pretty quiet. I stayed in my room much of the first day, mainly sleeping or reading. There were other people in the Guesthouse (GH as before) but I avoided them. Then my hunger got the better of me and I found the pantry.... I should probably say a bit about the way the GH worked: each person has a private room with en-suite bathroom, nothing special, just a bed, desk, wardrobe and sink, toilet, shower. Neat though, and clean. Then there is a communal laundry area, a communal lounge/TV room, and the kitchen-dinningroom. The kitchen is all self-service and it's fully equipped. Except they didn't have a baking dish which I ended up needing. But the most brilliant thing about that GH was the pantry. It was a huge walk-in affair, a room unto itself with one full fridge, one full freezer, veg rack, and three cupboards fully stocked with everything from water and sodas to noodles to junk food. Oh, ha, and in the corner.... cases of beer. That got used quite a lot. Food-wise I think that GH was my favourite out of all my trips. You could use whatever you wanted and as much as you wanted because the cost of food was built in to your accommodation fee. I left with a great appreciation for three Dutch food items: Grolsch (their beer, which is imported to SA!), their equivalent of 2-Min Noodles (it comes in a tub and you just peel off the foil top - like a big tub of yoghurt - add boiling water and the two sachets, mix and enjoy), and these chocolate-chip cookies. OMG they were amazing - their only bad side was that they always tasted like more. So yes, food there was not a problem.

I eventually started to get cabin fever in my room so I opted to go eat my noodles in the lounge (it has a full bookcase too so I was quite happy). That's where I met my first person. Saswat is an Indian guy - I think from Calcutta - and we got on really well. ASTRON has two departments: astronomy, and electronic engineering. Most of the friends I made ended up being from the engineering side of things. Saswat was one of them. We got chatting and he ended up inviting me to a movie evening some of the guys were organising that evening. They use one of the projectors in a seminar room in ASTRON so big screen here we go! I was proud of myself for accepting the offer. That's where I met most of the other people I'd interact with most on the trip. Greg was there, he seemed to be running things, and Megan, as well as an Italian girl and some Chinese guys. I don't remember the movie unfortunately. But it was a fun night. Someone had bought beer and I had a can to blend in - it was some terrible Lager though. Ek het met lang tande gedrink. Serves me right. Then the guitar came out and I discovered for the first time that Greg and Megan were quite musically inclined. I also remember watching a Placebo concert.

The next day the work began and I met Dr Neeraj Gupta, my collaborator who was going to teach me more of CASA - the data reduction program I use for work. I was nervous at first but I think we got on quite well and he definitely taught me a lot. He made me present to him every day on theory he'd allocated me the day before which I hated but it was good for me. Over the course of the visit I attended astronomy lunches and weekly seminars. I even got given free copies of people's PhD dissertations - nicely printed in book-form. Still haven't read either one though. I'm a bad student. All-in-all the work side of things was good and I think I achieved more in my two weeks there than I had in the previous 3 months. Typical. But the work part of things was a just a side note for me compared to all the other stuff that happened on that trip.

Greg's Ratatouille (photo courtesy of the cook)
My time in Dwingeloo was just as great as the times out of it - I saw my first movie at a Dutch cinema. Did you know they still use intermissions? And they don't bother about timing; they chop it off down the middle, doesn't matter if it's in the middle of someone speaking, they just freeze it and you get the screen saying INTERMISSION like in the old movies - that was a cool experience. I drove on the wrong side of the road and parked beautifully if I do say so myself. Greg was brave enough to let me drive his car. I was initially nervous and declined but he insisted. And then proceeded to laugh at me because the fastest I went was 60 km/h. What a strange feeling, driving a car on the opposite side of the road from SA, and in a car with the steering on the opposite side. I klapped the door with my hand each time I had to change gear - your body just takes over if you don't think about it and it's VERY strange to use your right hand to shift, at least at first. We were on our way to the supermarket to buy ingredients for ratatouille. Greg had promised to make it for me so we had a get together with Megan and Hongmin (one of the Chinese guys) and he made it for dinner. YUM! It was so delicious it makes my stomach grumble just thinking about it. That was a fun night - greeting the landlords and their horses, their highly excitable little dog, drinking South African wine (I'll get to that), enjoying a good meal, listening to music and laughing with new friends. The type of night you have to give a happy sigh for when recalling. Like now. :)

Then there were the many happy evenings spent in the GH with Saswat, Megan, and of course, Greg. Plus any other visitors who were there at the time. Lots of Grolsch was consumed (or whatever beer Megan and Greg had brought), laughs were had, sarky discussions, and once, Super Mario was played on the console. It must have been one of the first nights I was there because I remember telling Greg that French people, particularly Parisian French, had the stereotype of being rude and snobby to foreigners. He didn't deny it but it seemed to really piss off a British man who was visiting. He made me feel quite bad for saying it actually. Then there were the long talks I had with Greg in the GH lounge, often carrying on late into the morning. It was during one of these that the Schengen-ness of my visa became an important thing. And another when I introduced him to Mango Groove, and I sang Wonderboom's Africa acapella. To this day I can't believe I had the guts to do that. Just the two of us there and I sang in the silence. I'm blushing from embarrassment just thinking about it. I think the empty bottles of Grolsch on the table helped me along though. They must have.

Now as I've said before, I did a lot of travelling with Greg. Exponentially more than I had expected to do on that trip, which was almost zero. I'll stay within the Dutch borders for now. Other than visiting the movies with Greg and Megan in Hoogeveen, and going to a band rehearsal at someones house in some town I can't remember the name of (Greg was a drummer in the band), I saw Utrecht, Zwolle, Amersfoort and a little bit of Amsterdam. Now all of this was on the same day and the only place we'd intended on going to was Amersfoort and that was for a specific reason: the closest South African store to Dwingeloo was there. Why did we need to visit it? Because I had promised to make Peppermint Crisp Tart, the scrumptious SA dessert which requires, to make it properly, some Nestle Peppermint Crisp, which is only available in SA. That, and Tennis Biscuits and Caramel Treat. Oh and you need fresh cream but we just got that at the supermarket. The dessert was for a dinner we were going to and that's what I needed the baking dish for. I improvised by lining a flat-bottomed strainer with foil. Seemed to work. Ooh damn, now I want to make it. And eat it!

That was a busy day actually - an entire morning spent rondlooping round Dutch country and then getting back and making the tart and then leaving for the dinner, and then leaving for.... Yeah ok I'll get to that. Back to Dutch country. We left for Amersfoort and it was on the way there that we stopped in at Zwolle for some drive-by sightseeing. I saw some of the channels and a few pretty cool buildings. But then it was on to Amersfoort and the SA store where I got what I needed and Greg came away with biltong, two bottles of SA wine (I never knew Zonnebloem Pinotage was so tasty!) and some Milo. Think I got him hooked ;) Since Amersfoort is so close to Amsterdam, Greg offered to take me there since we had time (turned out we had less than we thought but no matter). How can you say no to that? So we kept driving and I got to spend two hours walking around that famous city. The strangest site for me was an old stone church, still functioning I think, smack bang in the middle of the Red Light District. Can you imagine walking out of the church and being surrounded by dildos and mostly-naked women in windows beckoning you closer? Weird. My sense of direction saved us from being lost, though I know that many of you who know me won't believe that. I realise that I've gotten lost before with a Garmin, but I managed to get the two of us back to the car by walking in some chosen direction and secretly holding my breath unitl I saw something I recognised. See Greg, I'm not as impressive as I looked. I was admittedly a bit disappointed with the city of sin. The dagga had no novelty for me because, well I come from Durban (see here). And the Red Light district was an eye-opener but didn't quite shock me to my core. I think I needed to see more of the city to garner a true appreciation for it. Next time, next time.

Our host checking on the stew (photo courtesy of Atilla
So then it was back to Dwingeloo where Greg helped me clobber Peppermint Crisp to pieces (men can be so useful!) and watched interestedly as I put the tart together layer by layer. We shoved it in the fridge, hoping that there would be enough time for it to set before leaving for the dinner party in Hoogeveen. We'd spent a bit too long in Amsterdam and ended up with more than an hour too few but we managed. That party was fun too, though I felt a little awkward as everyone seemed to know everyone and then there was me. I got on well with the hosts though which is always a plus. They made a fantastic stew - I can't remember what it was called but I think it was Belgian. And my tart went down well so that was a relief. After eating we played some Dutch game called Sjoelen which was rather fun though I was pretty useless at it. It was a good end to an enjoyable evening. I met a new person there, a (Hungarian?) named Atilla. Since Hongmin dropped out of the trip to follow, he came along instead.

Oh and I say we visited Utrecht because we stopped in at a McDonalds there to get breakfast on our way out of the Netherlands a week later (yes, I will be getting to where in time) the day before Greg took me back to the airport for my flight home.
That concludes the Dutch stretch of my trip... Schengen-ness usage coming soon! Oh, and in rememberance of my time in the Netherlands, other than the memories themselves, I'm now the owner of another mug (my collectable of choice it seems) courtesy of Greg, and an ASTRON shirt.

Hongmin owning at Sjoelen (video courtesy of Atilla)

Oh! Wait, one more thing. I'm not sure I mentioned that Greg was part of the engineering department (he's due to finish his PhD next year sometime). That is relevant because there was one other South African there around our age who happened to work in an office close to Greg's. His name is David and he was from Stellies! Perhaps there were

personality clashes but some of the people there didn't get along with him at all. Anyhoo, Greg introduced us when I asked him and I actually enjoyed speaking to him. Sometimes it's just pleasant to hear a voice that sounds like home. He visited me in my office before going home one day and we chatted for something like two hours! Well, he chatted and I listened. I think he just missed home.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

World Tripping: Schengen Win!

Now that I'm in India on another work trip, and the fact that it's not going completely thumbs up, it's made me recollect with even more fondness than usual my trip at the beginning of 2012 to the Netherlands. Again, for work. Then I remembered I hadn't added it to my World Tripping blogs so I'm doing that now.

I'll start at the end by saying I left the Netherlands for home with two things I didn't have on the the plane ride there - a guitar and a good French friend. It's not hyperbole to say that this Frenchman made my trip great because without him I know I wouldn't have had the opportunities or the experiences I did while over there. So I owe him an enormous thank-you :)

So, logistics.... Getting the visa for the Netherlands was a relatively simple affair. Plus the visa was free for student-related trips so all I had to pay for was the courier fee to get it to and from Pretoria. Big positive there considering my last visa had cost me over a thousand rand. Then there's the fact that the Netherlands is part of the Schengen states. Europe, although the Euro doesn't seem to be working for everyone right now, I like the Schengen states collaboration. Please keep it. Anyhoo, for those that don't know, a Schengen visa allows the traveler to go between Schengen state countries willy-nilly for the duration of the visa validity period, provided doing so doesn't take you into a non-Schengen country. Greg (the friend above) told me that you can't take the train from the Netherlands to (Spain? Italy?) because although the beginning and end destination are Schengen, the route passes through (Lithuania?) which isn't, so you'd get chucked off the train or something if you didn't have a visa that allowed you into that country. Inconvenient but true. Now the Schengen nature of my visa was for me, at least initially, merely a nice fact rather than a foreseeably useful characteristic. But thank goodness it was there...

This trip was also a first for me in that I didn't fly direct, but rather went DBN - DBX (Dubai) and then DBX - AMS (Amsterdam). The flights from South to North weren't too bad because I had only a few-hour lay-over in Dubai airport which was bearable. It was the North to South one that killed me but more on that later.

I landed at Schipol airport tired and a little grumpy from having to deal with sitting squished between BO-infested passengers who kept talking to me and wouldn't let me sleep. When is my good plane seating karma going to kick in?! At the airport I was a bit taken aback by how dissimilar Afrikaans is to Dutch. Felt quite betrayed by all those back in SA who had said all would be hunky and dory. I had to find my way by train to Hoogeveen (pronounced Hoe-gge-vein in Dutch, as opposed to Hooa-gge-feen in Afrikaans) - while I was waiting for an available ticket machine a Dutch couple randomly came up to me and offered me a train ticket for free. My distrusting SA-ness kicked in but they said they had decided to visit Spain for the weekend and wouldn't be able to use the ticket. This is round about the time I found out the pronunciation differences when double checking that the ticket could be used to get me where I needed to be. I said the name in the Afrikaans manner and they had no idea where I was talking about. It would though so I was grateful to them. And after uhmming and ahhing and being nervous that I was getting on a train going in the wrong direction I got onboard and managed to get to my stop without too much stress. There was a friendly and spiffy-looking taxi driver waiting to take me to ASTRON (The Netherlands Research Facility for Astrophysics) and I could relax.

I remember being quite excited to see my first Dutch windmill and being amazed and the size of the wind turbines which seem to be dotted all over the countryside. Plus it was lovely and green. And there were lots of horses (I've been noticing the goats and cows in India - I must be such a farm girl at heart). It a surreal feeling to travel through the countryside of a new place, seeing the differences and similarities to home and realising you're on the other side of the globe. I've felt it on every trip thus far.

I was surprised when we arrived at ASTRON. It was nothing like I'd expected. It complemented the surrounding forest so well, when I'd been expecting this great modern corporate-looking building. I much preferred what I saw. Far more unassuming. The driver waited until I was in the Guesthouse (GH) building before leaving. It was probably my automatic 'in-a-new-place-and-unsure-of-things' survival mode kicking in but although I remember there being people outside the GH I don't remember their faces. I'm not even sure if I managed to say hello in response to their 'welcome'. I later found out that it had been Greg and Megan (one of the British postdocs working at ASTRON) that day.

After settling in (I even unpacked my bag) and having a shower (pretty much the first thing you want to do after a day's travelling) I slept. Yes, I thought that would be captivating too. Actually, this post is quite long already (have I said much, or was it just waffling?) so I think I will leave this to be continued.

You can anticipate new friends, chocolate chip cookies, French champagne and Belgian beer...

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Maybe India isn't for Me

So if you've read the previous post you may be in the loop as to why I am in India. If not, it's for work. Yes, I have been lucky in that in the past year I have been able to visit fifteen different cities/towns in six different countries on four different continents. Even luckier to have made great friends during two of those trips and visited a good friend on another. I haven't even had to see some of those cities alone. So all in all yay for me. Truly. This last time however, I am not so happy about being away from SA.

India is very different from SA. Or maybe that's not true. There are similarities but India is just more and on a larger scale. For example the bad driving. Our taxis in SA can be a terror on the roads and in town you always have to be aware that they could suddenly stop or turn or appear without warning. In India they have the same thing, but with all vehicles everywhere and all the time. My taxi journey from Mumbai to Pune was harrowing at times when on-coming traffic missed us by a few centimetres, or when the driver was careening round corners of a busy expressway, dodging trucks at 02h00 on wet roads, in the rain, 20 km over the speed limit. And he wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Eventually I found it was better to close my eyes and ignore it all, trusting the driver to get me where I was headed in one piece. Seemed to work out I'd say. Oh, and the SA taxis are famous for overcrowding but here's a excerpt from a movie I recently saw that seems to ring true from what I've seen here so far:

Madge:  But look at the bus! There's not enough room!
Graham:   First rule of India: there's always room. 
(from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) 

There certainly are things that are different though. The food is vastly different to SA food. I was initially worried about it actually. As it is I don't have a particularly high tolerance for spicy and hot food, and after my Hep debacle my system seems to freak out randomly: if food is too hot or too spicy or too oily I go bleuuuugh. So I brought ten packets of 2-Minute Noodles with me. I am happy to say I haven't had to use any yet, though it's not like I easily could have even if I wanted to. No microwaves. And no kettle in the room. I have had some of my Salticracks. Back to the food, it hasn't been that spicy so far. I'm missing SA food though. Even though I like it, there's only so much dal and chappattis I can eat in consecutive meals. I am getting desperate for All Bran and raisins, or a full English breakfast, or a prime steak, or even a simple braai with potato salad, greens and rolls. And there's the whole not being able to drink the water thing. It's very weird brushing my teeth with bottled water. That's something that SA should be proud of - that we can drink the water from the taps without getting sick.

The people here are nice enough on the whole, though whether it's the language barrier (most speak Hindi or the local dialect) or what, they seem aloof, and I'm aloof with them, having little to no indication to make a concerted effort to make friends. I'm not sure what it is about being in this country but I don't feel comfortable here and I feel very out of place. I have never considered leaving a country early but this time round I have enquired into moving my international flight. I don't think I will be lucky though. So another week and a bit it is to be. It may get better.

Since arriving in Pune (the second time round) I have had two awkward conversations with my roommate, bathed in tiny bits of water from a bucket (whenever I go to shower they seem to turn the water off, and the shower doesn't actually work, just the knee-high tap), gone an entire day without eating (not intentionally - I just missed the meal times) and been told by an Egyptian man that I look like I'm 30-35 years old and that I should get married because otherwise I will have no stability in my life. Have I mentioned that I want to go home?

It's not all doom and gloom. The area seems quite pretty and the campus is shielded from the city by lots of greenery. Were I in the mood to work it would be a good, quiet environment for it. And as I said, my body doesn't reject the food. There are things to be grateful for.

But sorry India, you may be a country with many experiences to offer, full of vibrancy, culture and colour (noise and a crush of people) but I'm not sure you're for me. Perhaps another time, if I have a friend to share you with.

From LAK to LAB: My Sister's New Journey

Clockwise from top: Mr & Mrs Knowles,
Mr & Mrs Britz, and me.
Look at my new family. As of the 25th of August 2012 there is one less Knowles and one more Britz in the world. (Although my sister hasn't changed her name on Facebook yet, so how official could it really be...)

What a busy, busy weekend that turned out to be. I don't know how my sister is feeling about it but to me it is still rather surreal to realise that she is now married. Legally, officially, undeniably no longer a 'Knowles'. It's going to take a while for her new name to roll off the tongue fluidly.

Let me divulge my view of things regarding her wedding, both lead up to and the day itself...

The now-Britz's got engaged in early March. I think. I was in the Netherlands at the time and I remember sms'ing my sister from the plane back to SA to congratulate them. Next thing I knew they'd booked the wedding for August (shotgun you might say but no, no, nothing like that). That didn't leave much time for organisation though. Plus my sister asked me to be a bridesmaid, on the condition that I had to be in the country for a full month prior to the wedding. Understandable. At the time my GMRT observations had yet to be scheduled, and I'd specified non-preferred dates, so I wasn't worried. That nearly kicked me in the butt. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now I've been living in Durban, about an hour's drive away from my parents' house. That meant that I wasn't around during the week and I wasn't getting back there every weekend either due to work. My mother kept me updated every so often so I heard the cliff notes version of the drama leading up to the wedding. Let's just say there was a fair bit of it. My sister and my family; my sister and her family-to-be; my new brother and his family; my sister and my new brother. By tye was alles 'n bietjie van 'n gemors. But they got through it! My dad actually stepped up to the plate once, so I'm told, and had a chat to the young Mr Britz. See Laul, Dad stands up for you! In retrospect I wish I could have been there for my sister more. I was obviously there in the sense that she could call me or email me or something if she needed to talk, but sometimes you just need to be there in body as well as spirit. It's easier to hug a real person than sound waves through a telephone wire.

Well, things slowly started to come together wedding plans-wise. The venue was chosen, the guest list got sorted in tiers, apparel for the bridal party was bought or made, flowers we chosen, etc etc. I must say though I was quite unimpressed by Cranford Country Lodge's organisation regarding possible guest numbers. They didn't even have true measurements for their chapel! It was the early days of wedding drama and I'd come home for a weekend, had my first glance at the provisional guest list, saw the numbers, looked at the measurements of the chapel they'd been given and did the math. Dodgy! I deduced that there was no way that 150 people (the max number of guests CCL said could fit in the chapel) would actually fit with the given measurements. Unless every single person was a 5'2 narrow-hipped, narrow-shouldered individual. 5 people to a 1.2m bench? Really? Nuh-uh. When I told my sister that, she just thought I was siding with my parents and ganging up on her. So my parents and I went up to the venue with a measuring tape and did CCL's work for them. They'd gotten it SO wrong. On the upside it meant that everything was not a mountain and the desired number of people could possibly fit, given a squish. Plus I got to see the venue for the first and only time pre-wedding. And I felt involved. Thumbs up.

Chantal, Jess, Laurel and me in the Liberty
Midlands Mall bathroom before the tasks start.
I don't remember much of the rest of it until planning for my sister's bachelorette began (other than bits of drama I shan't divulge). Between the six of us - the matron-of-honour, three bridesmaids, and the two mothers - we put together a rather cool shindig I think. First it was embarrassing the bride-to-be by dressing her up in some funky stuff and making her do tasks in the local shopping mall. They included riding on the fun-rides, buying a sex-toy for her husband-to-be, and asking two couples for advice on marriage, among others. We all thought Laul would dig her heels in and resist, but she really got into the swing of things and seemed to take it all in good spirit and enjoyed herself which was great to see. The mall security were a bit long in the face about photographs though.

Then it was off to her mother-in-law's house for the shower part of things. The rest of her friends who could make it were there and the plan was to play games, have tea, open presents and just have a fun and relaxing afternoon. Some of the planned games couldn't go ahead because they were of a more sexual nature and some of the guests had brought their children with them (who brings kids to a bachelorette party?!). In the end it all worked out ok though and my sister enjoyed herself which was the main point. I was disgusted by some of her church friends who didn't have the decency to pitch when they said they would, or who were too cowardly to tell her so they told her fiance' instead. What little respect I had for those people died that day. Lilly-livered, yellow-bellied currs! Ok, deep breath. Zen...........

So yes, the party went off well in most aspects. I unintentionally made my sister cry though. At the end of the bridal shower I presented her with a hand-made recipe book that my mother and I had put together for her - a collaboration of recipes from her friends and family. The tears came when I told her my mom and I had put in a recipe from our gran who passed away a couple of months before. I know she would have loved to have been there and be a part of my sister's day. Love you Gran. Perhaps the best thing about the whole plan though, was that my sister didn't see it coming. It all worked out quite nicely. She thought she was going to the Mall to meet up with her matron-of-honour to do some wedding-related shoe shopping, so when she saw Chantal she was fine, and then taken by surprise when she saw Jess, my mother and me. Her fiance' played his part brilliantly too and didn't let on what was going to happen. High-five Jaco! Our other grandmother had also come down from JHB specially so she could be a part of the day - the plan had been that my sister wouldn't see her until the shower but she'd gone home unexpectedly before coming to the mall and saw our grandma anyway. Edna Knowles played it cool though and when my sister enquired as to why she was there, she replied smoothly that she was coming to visit until the wedding. My sister, dear child that she is, just took it as normal and thought nothing of it. And then we blind-sided her. Priceless :) 

Oh yes, the GMRT observing I'd mentioned earlier. In about April I found out when those had been scheduled and curse my luck it was smack bang in the middle of my non-preferred dates. After trying and failing to move them, I had to make a decision - career or family. Now I asked friends for advice, I spoke to my sister and parents about it. You may be sitting there shaking your head and wondering why I bothered. Simple choice right? Well if it makes me a bad person then so be it: for me it was a serious decision. Either way I felt like I'd be letting someone down; on the one hand my sister and family, and on the other my supervisor and the international collaborators for whom I'd agreed to observe. Everyone except my family told me to choose the wedding. Even my sister said that my career was important and that I couldn't miss the opportunity. So I chose. I chose to go to India instead. Having made a decision I realised that the knowledge that I'd not be there to see my sister walk down the isle made my heart sick. So in the few seconds after deciding I knew what the right decision for me was and I changed my mind. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too but if it meant that I had to miss India and potentially let down my colleagues, then so be it. Family is important. 

That's all the big news from my side until the day of the wedding. Now, the week before the wedding I hadn't slept much, was stressed with work, depressed about other things, and looked like a zombie. Heck, the weekend before I'd almost fallen asleep twice on the drive from Howick to PMB. Anyway, I woke up at my parents' house on the Saturday morning and in about an hour the house was overrun by people - hair people, makeup people (who talked incessantly), bridesmaids et al. All part of the day I guess. Now I'm not a girly-girl per se and perhaps the zombie-state had something to do with it but I feel like I wasn't very with it and I worry that my sister felt I wasn't getting into the spirit of her day. I apologise for that. I hadn't been able to be there for the wedding rehearsal on the Thursday night and I feel bad about it - felt like I'd missed out. Everyone knew the day's plan except me. As things turned out, after getting hair done I was the last to get my makeup done (even the makeup lady told me I had tired eyes; well, that's what makeup is for isn't it, to hide the bags?). This meant that I wasn't in the room when my sister was getting dressed. Again, missed out, as it seemed to have been meant to be a thing where my sister's bridal party and mom were helping her get ready etc etc blah. Oh well. I tried to be in the moment with my sister as much as possible that Saturday. One thing that made me smile was seeing my father stress over his speech. He'd play it cool in front of my sister and freak her out by appearing blase' but he came to me during the morning of and asked me to listen to it and give him advice. My dad and sister have never had a close relationship and I think Laul used to think he didn't really care that much, but that speech hopefully made her see she was dead wrong. Hearing my dad recollect days when my sister was little made my heart smile. Naturally when he was giving the speech to the wedding guests it didn't sound as eloquent as when he was saying it to me at home, but he did well and I hope my sister was proud. 

The service was nice, a bit too Christian for me, but it suited the new Mr and Mrs Britz well. I cried when I saw my sister enter the chapel, my mother's veil over her head, on the arm of my dad. I am so so glad I didn't miss it. Watching Jaco choke up when he saw her and have his voice crack when speaking to her his vows was also a beautiful thing. The festivities were great too - people danced and partied until almost midnight. Have to say thank-you to the Knowles and Oates families for coming down from JHB to share in my sister's day. Seeing the joy on my two remaining grandparents' faces was wonderful. I just wish my gran was here and could have seen Laurel in all her bride-beauty and happiness. It makes me sad to think chances are slim of me having any grandparents at my hypothetical wedding. So turns the wheel of life.

As I said earlier, family is important. That's the one thing that the wedding and entire pre-wedding debacle has made me realise more fully than before. It resonates with me more perhaps because I am not, and neither is my immediate family, overtly family-oriented. I mean that in the sense that we are not close with our relatives and even within the small group of my parents, my sister and myself, we aren't very close in the sense of do everything together nor always know what's happening in each other's lives. But when we need each other, or when excrement impacts the apparatus with rotating blades which creates a current of air for cooling or ventilation, my family comes together and we are a rock. And I think this is preferable to those families that give the impression of being super close when all is dandy but fall apart with an each-for-themselves attitude when things aren't so rosy. I have a new appreciation for this fact and I'll say it again: family is important

Thanks to Grandma Knowles, Grandpa Oates, Mark and Helen, Grant and Avril, Ross, Tarryn,  Brenda , and Jeffrey for making the effort to come down to PMB for the wedding. Hope all of you had a safe journey back to JHB. And Uncle Mark, though you may never read this, I'm sending as many positive thoughts as possible your way - I hope you recover very quickly and do that soon. Much love to you all.