#livinginlondon6

Deep into October and I’ve yet to write a word. Shame on me.

It’s hard to write when you’re also having fun – which we have been. We both have birthdays in October and in recent years, have chosen to spend them in Singapore. That’s two weeks – more than most visitors spend there in a lifetime. Even the locals give us very odd looks when we say how long we’re in town for.

It works for us.

Bar blur – Singapore
Red bike – Singapore

Last year, we came to the realisation that age, stamina and the heat weren’t as do-able as they used to be, restricting ourselves to one major outing/activity a day. That worked very well, and we left for Cape Town and home, aware that even so, there had been a couple of things we usually do that had been missed this time around.

A good reason to return. As though we needed one.

This year has been different. Having been recently diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, Di’s poor balance, fatigue, inability to walk properly and hearing loss now seem to have a genesis, which is being dealt with by the NHS. In practical terms, she wears hearing aids, but there has been no solution for her mobility issues and so, this year in Singapore has been marked by longer rest periods in the hotel, shorter walks and lots of planning in terms of access, staircases, escalators and lifts.

That said, our time in the city state was as much fun as usual, to the extent that we actually managed to see and do everything we wanted, albeit at a more leisurely pace.

Aside; it’s been a while since we discovered the hotel transfer service offered from Changi airport. Then it was S$9 per person. Today, probably six or seven years later? Still S$9 and just as efficient.

Commuter – Singapore

And so with most things. Prices rarely change and there’s a VAT hike looming (from 7%) which has the locals in an uproar. They should try living in SA, where the cost of pretty much anything seems to be based on a whim and there’s little justification offered when 15% or more is suddenly hiked to the price of anything. Before leaving for London in May and in the space of a few weeks, I watched the price of beef mince increase from a usual R44/half kilo pack to around R55. Five months later, the price has now inched up to R58. It’s the same 15% saline injected meat and I wonder how the resellers (in this case, Woolworths) justify it.

We’re in the middle of a drought, with beef stocks being run down – mainly by increased slaughtering – as a result. Yet meat prices increase by more than 30%. How does that work?

With our part relocation to London earlier in the year, a planned family trip to Mexico in the New Year and a host of other things, our travel plans and ticketing has been something of a Gordian knot, resulting in our recent outbound leg from London to Singapore being handled by Lufthansa. This required a hop from Heathrow to Munich and then the long haul section, again with the German carrier.

I’m glad my flying for work days are done – see photograph below, shot between London and Munich  – I can’t imagine being subjected to this on a regular basis. The long haul flight was markedly better, but the food as awful as one’s imagination can conjure.

Cramped – Lufthansa style

If you can that is. Let me help; chicken or beef? The main chicken offering was a thick mess of cooked to death flesh that was more soggy collagen than meat. That’ll set you up nicely.

We returned to Cape Town with Emirates. A crazy way to fly, but inbound from South Africa, the Singapore Airlines flight arrives at 05:50 and the return flight to Cape Town leaves at 01:55. In short, the super early landing means an extra half day added to your hotel bill if you want a shower and nap on arrival. It’s that, or hang around until 14:00 when they’ll let you into your room as usual.

More importantly, it also avoids the Singapore Airlines landing, two hour wait for the baggage handlers to have a leisurely luggage search and theft session in Jozi – the plane lands both ways; in and out of South Africa.

Similarly, when flying back, one must bear in mind that a take off thirteen hours after you’ve been required to vacate your room usually means the extra cost of yet another full day in the hotel, even if you’re not there to enjoy it all.

So, Emirates it was. We left for Changi at a sensible 17:30, changed planes in Dubai at an inescapable but pretty do-able 03:00 (time difference taken into account) and arrived in Cape Town after a lengthy sleep at 11:30 in the morning. Good call.

Back in Rooi Els just after midday, we discovered that ESCOM was once again load shedding and had to wait a couple of hours to do anything that required electricity. Fortunately, we have a solar water heater and a gas stove, so a shower and food wasn’t such a problem.

14:30 and the scheduled switch on time came, but the electricity didn’t. As so often happens with the nation’s poorly managed and maintained electrical infrastructure, the restoration of power broke something else and we were left without power until after 19:00, by which time, the jet lag had caught up with us and we were almost comatose and beyond caring much.

I should have known better, because the second round of load shedding started barely minutes after the power was finally restored from the morning session. No problem there – we were asleep by then, but when the power was finally switched back on some time around 22:30, our alarm system went into hyper mode, because the batteries hadn’t been charged for almost twelve hours.

Modernist Singapore

The shrieking siren eventually roused me enough to realise something bad was afoot, but it took considerably longer for my addled, sleep deprived mind to work out exactly what was going on. After several minutes of panic and wonder, a visit to the control unit in the garage and frantic button pushing quieted the damn thing sufficiently for me to stumble back to my bed and several more hours of blessed jet lag relieving sleep.

Welcome to South Africa.

Just about anyone you might talk to has an opinion about and a remedy for our failing electricity supplier. They’re all much the same and most employ language as a club, rather than a tool. I’ve been away for four months and am already angry all over again.

Load shedding day two was much the same as day one, including the failure of restoration after the promised 20:30 switch on. The bedside light we’d switched on to use as a signal when the power came back on woke me at about 02:30, not that I cared over much by then.

“Stop bitching. It is what it is. You could be freezing your cobs off in London, but you chose to come here instead.”

I did. I’ll make the best of it. Promise.

Everyone has some kind of tale to tell of Britain’s NHS. Most not very complimentary. We’re doing our best, with Di succeeding significantly better than me at this stage.

To try and avoid more frustration with the NHS, I decided to use our still in place South African medical aid and made appointments with our GP, hygienist, dentist and optician while we are here. In addition to all that, I’ve also had my annual blood tests done and three visits to a physio to sort out a post-airline seat stiff neck. It was a hell of a busy week, but all in, a one worth spending time on. I have new glasses, Di has had root canal and a new crown made and so, we’re both now in pretty good shape.

Barriers – Singapore

Tuesday 29th and we are due at Cape Town station by 08:00 to put the car on the Shosholoza Meyl train to Johannesburg – the first leg of our now annual trip to the Kruger Park. I decided to try the train last year, in preference to driving almost 2000km each way. It proved cost effective, got us to Johannesburg (and back to Cape Town) in reasonable time and reduced the amount of wear and tear (and stress) on both the car and us.

This year, has not been such a happy time. The morning traffic into Cape Town’s CBD is nightmarish and so bad, that despite allowing two hours for a journey that usually only takes half that, we almost missed the train. Once there – within seconds of the deadline – we got a great welcome and boarded ready for our 09:05 departure. The train remains solid, comfortable and offers AC access for charging computers, phones and the like. The food is unimaginatively edible, a percentage point or two above boarding school fare. The bar makes a fair G&T.

Regrettably, the service itself has deteriorated. Last year, we were two and a half hours late into Johannesburg and almost four hours delayed on our return into Cape Town. This year, rail operator PRASA, has excelled themselves.

As I write, we are crawling across the Vaal Triangle, some 50km south of our destination, already five hours and change late. Since leaving Cape Town we’ve experienced a constant stream of start/stops, signal delays and we are told, as recently as this morning, cable theft from the signalling system near Carletonville which has caused the closure of the line. So, we’re on a detour and experiencing yet more delay. We are expecting to arrive somewhere around 19:00 and I am still hoping to get the car this evening. But if everyone has got bored and gone home, who knows what will happen?

As it turned out, the train arrived ten hours late. We then waited another hour and a half for our car to be de-trained. Fortunately, I’d warned the hotel of our likely lateness and we had to postpone our planned dinner date with friends. In fact, we missed dinner completely.

After four decades of living here, we’re pretty used to this kind of thing. I feel sorry for the tourists who are enchanted into buying these services by glossy brochures. They don’t know how to plan around the inevitable missed flights and connections. There is little or no help for them, in fact, most of the time finding anyone to ask is fruitless, as the respondent is all too often sullen, ill-educated and has been innoculated against the stresses of being helpful.

Welcome to South Africa.

In stark contrast, I’ve watched the latter stages of South Africa’s progress into the RWC Final at our local, as our satellite TV service DStv went into the bin a while back. Against Japan, a small but rowdy crowd cheered our lads on. Playing Wales last Saturday and I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the ruckus was heard in far off Tokyo.

There we all were, blacks, whites, pinks and greys full of gees* and giving it large. I’ve watched South African sport on our travels around the world over and there are few populations who can generate so much national pride and fervour. I cannot for the life of me work out why our government doesn’t share the vision. Maybe they are all too busy stealing, hoping we’re so busy being patriotic that we won’t notice?

* gees: Afrikaans for national pride and much much more. Oppas mense. Suid Afrika kom vir jou.

Experiencing the ANC government’s hopeless management, corruption and cadre deployment at first hand

For the second year running, we just used state-run PRASA’s Premier Classe train to travel with our car to/from Cape Town (to Johannesburg and then by road to the Kruger Park). Last year, it was a delightful trip, despite the train being a couple of hours late into Johannesburg and somewhat later on the return journey.

This year has been much less satisfactory, to the extent that we are unlikely to travel this way ever again.

The train itself was much the same as last year; old, well worn, but in the main, clean and serviceable. The crew, delightful. The catering is unnecessarily ambitious for such a restricted facility and would be better sticking to the basics.

The up train was almost half an hour late leaving Cape Town and got progressively later in an endless series of starts/stops until we reached Klerksdorp, where it stopped completely. Passengers with time sensitive travel connections in Johannesburg left the train to be ferried in a minibus, while we sat. And waited. After perhaps half an hour, the train manager told us that a cable theft had all but rendered our passage into Johannesburg impossible and that the train was being re-routed via the Vaal Triangle.

Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. I lost count of these momentary, minutes long or half hour delays, but 20 – 30 wouldn’t be a bad estimate. The Train Manager explained that there were signalling problems and each stop required an “authorisation” to move forward.

The train eventually arrived at Park Station some time after 21:00 – ten hours late.

We then waited another ninety minutes while the less than enthusiastic staff dragged themselves into slothful action and delivered our car.

During that time, we were required to cross with our luggage, from the arrival platform to the unloading bay, up a very long flight of 35 stairs and down a similar lengthy staircase. The escalators don’t work, nor do the lifts and apparently haven’t for at least two years. The waiting area is a collection of scruffy, broken chairs and benches in an almost pitch black area under a road bridge, adjacent to the unloading bay.

Di has a serious medical condition which affects her hearing and balance and is likely to have surgery shortly. She walks with a stick. Stairs are impossible. If it hadn’t been for the train crew’s assistance, we’d have been in serious trouble. And I have to ask, would you want to be hanging around Johannesburg station late at night in the dark, with absolutely no security, protection or supervision going on?

The return journey?

It’s hard to imagine worse, but it was, by a very long way.

We left Johannesburg 40 minutes late and made reasonable time until Leeudoringstad, where the diesel engine expired. It took seventeen hours for a replacement locomotive to arrive.

Leeudoringstad – the view for 17 hours

Then, the train still went stop, start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. We were also without water for the shower, washing hands, toilets or anything else for much of the trip. The WCs had no plugs in the sink, rarely had soap and were constantly without towels, paper or otherwise.

Then the train’s on-board electrical generator failed in Kimberley, leaving us sweltering with no air conditioning. Eventually, the crew managed to re-start the equipment, but only long after it was dark.

Between Paarden Eiland and Cape Town, one of the two replacement electric locos failed and we sat for another two hours until a diesel loco arrived to drag the train into the station – now 27 hours late.

Of course, there were any number of PRASA managers and PR people on hand to apologise and offer compensation.

Not.

After the Train Manager had scuttled off home – no doubt exhausted by making excuses for his employer and its complete inability to manage anything, there was no one from PRASA at all. The most senior people being the guys that unloaded the cars – that took another 40 minutes, because Transnet never seems to be in a hurry.

Meanwhile, international visitors had missed connections, car hire arrangements and hotel bookings. No apology from PRASA. To a man those visitors and their pounds/dollars won’t be back.

Us too. We stopped flying with SAA many years ago after we were left behind in Miami after Hurricane Andrew stranded us in Orlando with no connecting flight. Now, it’s PRASA/Transnet.

I’m asking for a refund. For the entire trip – all R20-odd thousand Rand’s worth. I doubt it will change much, but it will make me feel much, much better.

#livinginlondon5

Three geezers – Shoreditch

It seems that no sooner had I clicked on “post” for the last blog entry than I found myself at Heathrow waiting for a plane to Munchen and on to Singapore for our annual birthday frivolities.

Actually, I’d had two really interesting and pleasing e-mails overnight. One came from a fellow blogger in Australia, the other the wife of a long time business associate and friend in Johannesburg.

The first traversed my post and mentioned a fellowship as a psoriasis sufferer. Comparing notes helps, but does little to assuage the difficulties (for me) of dealing with the NHS. The other bought a fascinating life story of growing up in East London, hardship and changing times. Here’s a glimpse:

“I grew up whereby my grandmother knitted my shoes. That is woolly socks with rubber stuck as soles. We were poor, I worked in a pub and fish and chip shop from the age of 14! The deal when you grew up was you married the boy next door, lived in close proximity to your parents, bought a house two up two down… I nearly married a Jamaican, when his parents found out he was shipped back to the States!”

How times have changed.

Foundry tools

Last week also saw us catching-up with South African friends who now live California. We see each other irregularly and is so often the case, within minutes, we’ve picked-up where we left off. This time, we met at a classic (and favourite French restaurant in Mayfair) called Le Boudin Blanc (The White Sausage). It’s been around too long to be a jape at Boris Johnson’s Johnson and his erratic womanising, so I have to assume it’s real.

The lunch was. Real that is. A classic Table d’hôte, three exquisite courses for very little. Great company, great food…

Earlier in the week, I’d travelled out to Beaconsfield, deep in the stockbroker belt, to meet with a small group of school pals. Our lives have diverged unimaginably since we left grammar school in the late 1960s. A couple have travelled, one worked in South East Asia, fought the demon booze and then returned to Good Old Blighty before it was too late.

My best mate is continuing to fight the good fight against the Big C, still playing in a folk band and despite everything, still funny, great company and a friend I’m happy to stand alongside.

Me? I’ve to admit my gauche, abrasive and often profane view of the world doesn’t seem to sit well amongst such otherwise genteel company. I was reminded twice that I spoke too loud and said fuck much (much) too often, especially given the sensitivities of the well bred local community that might have been within hearing distance.

It’s not just me it seems

I left smiling, but feeling more than a little introspective. On the I’m OK, you’re OK scale, I’ve always felt quite content; enough of this and not too much of that. Being told that I am loud or just too un-English took me by surprise.

Money. Live here and you’ll need lots of it. And, when you’ve got it, suddenly, you might not need it after all. Few folks around here carry cash. Most use contactless credit and debit cards, or a phone-based option like Apple Pay.

It’s facilitated massively by the zero charge a card transaction attracts.

Walk through the turnstile for a Tube, or Overland train? Tap your card on the reader. Buses too. Buy a round in the local, cashless. Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Tesco too. Almost no-one uses money any more.

Imagine! No cash. Less theft, less loss, less cost.

Trouble is, it’s hard to imagine FNB, ABSA or Standard Bank in South Africa writing off their card charges. After all, we’re a captive market and so, why shouldn’t we pay the excessive bonuses the managers of these usuries feel they deserve?

Offices, Hackney
Shopkeeper – Hoxton
Chatting – Shoreditch
After work – Shoreditch

Moving on.

Singapore. Just about our favourite place to visit. Many years ago, we promised each other that we’d come to South East Asia every year and so far, not broken our word. We know people ask what we do in such a city state, as surely, we’re past the shopping now?

We are and have been for years.

What bring us back is the easy lifestyle, a collection of restaurants we’ve tried and liked, food we can’t always find at home, honesty, safety and a chance to temporarily live among interesting people. In truth, we’d happily live here, but the smallest of apartments are beyond our pocket and the lifestyle we enjoy elsewhere carries a price tag that causes hilarity to even consider. So we visit, usually longer than many folk spend on their beachfront holidays.