Friday, November 21, 2008

No news is good news

Most of the time when I mosey through this new life in Africa, I am very much in blissful denial when it comes to what happened in the twelve months preceding this move to Uganda.

Of course, the vast majority of those reading this know what happened.

But people I meet here for the first time have no idea. They don't look at me and see the stuff that went on little more than a year ago. My hair, whilst I'm still frustrated with it, is longer and looks more intentional than 'chemo patient in recovery'. My scars have healed and look like they could be years old.

So if they have no reason to suspect it, there is no reason it should come up. So I don't talk about cancer much, and for me, I think it helps. While I will no doubt be using this blog as a place to vent some very deep-seated fears come March and my year 2 scans, I will, between now and then, probably not think about it much.

And that is a good thing.

But for two of our customers, who drove in the Red Chilli gates a couple of weeks ago, it's all too front of mind right now. They were on their way round a major tour of Africa, driving their UK registered Discovery with no plans to go back to the UK before February next year.

But the whistle has been blown for S&J. S's mother was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer a couple of weeks ago, and they've been thrown into a whirlwind of skype video calls to find out what's what, when it will all happen, and last but certainly not least, how her mother is and how the rest of the family are coping and responding.

R had got chatting to them about cars, only to discover their news, and he told them about me. The next morning I sought them out to sit down with them for a five minute chat to see how S's mother was and to give her my best wishes and any feelings of confidence I could muster for them about the situation.

Two hours later, three strangers had got to know a lot more about eachother. We talked of her mother's situation, how the lump is small (8mm across) and the fact mine was 15mm across. I think the size thing gave them comfort - at least I hope it did - the fact that my lump was twice the size and I was sitting talking to them in Kampala eighteen months after diagnosis, apparently all okay. We then talked of operations and options, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and the politics of the situation. The fact that S's father had worked up until recently at the same hospital as her mother would be treated at, but that he was reluctant to accompany her for appointments and treatments as he had been forced to leave due to a personality dispute with several of the staff that would be treating to her. Phew... What to do about that?

The maelstrom of questions, discussions and emotions took me right back to the day I was diagnosed and the increasing stages of fall out and implication as it hit various areas of my life and I announced it to all my friends and family.

S&J were also weighing up their plans versus the urge to go straight home to Mum's bedside. S, in fact,was a physio who helped breast cancer patients recover movement in their arms after doctors had severed muscle and nerves in the course of removing lymph nodes in surgery, so she really wanted to be there to help her mother for that part of the process.

To make matters worse, they were just a few days short of their gorilla permits - they were due for gorilla tracking last Sunday at the cost of $500 each. The timing meant they probably did not have time to re-sell the permits, and S's mother was urging them to stay for at least that part of their trip. They were considering going home for a few months to see her through the surgery and initial treatment, leaving their car with us in the car park, to pick up again on their travels when the worst was over in the Spring of next year. Or the alternative of staying to finish their trip, but missing out on the part of the process that S felt confident about genuinely being able to help with, as well as lot of other key moments she wanted to be there for.

I talked to S a lot about the way I had felt about how people had offered support, and when they did. I received a lot of support, but it is true that like many people going through similarly dramatic problems in their lives (divorce, childbirth, illness, death of a loved one) everyone crowds you and cares for you at a point when you're still in shock and processing information, and it's only the few and the brave who stay it for the long run and know that actually, it's towards the end of the process that you need support the most.

In the course of the last week the two have made some big decisions. They went and saw gorillas, including two 15 week old baby gorillas, but they have decided to cut their trip short for good and they are now en route to Kenya to see about shipping their car home before jumping on a flight at Nairobi.

I feel terrible for them, but hopeful for S's mother's eventual prognosis. I was also plunged into a day of feeling really emotional - all the insecurities came flooding back. At the same time another breast cancer blogger, a few months ahead of me in terms of treatmemt and recovery, got in touch again and I updated myself on her life by reading her blog. She's in and out of consultant waiting rooms still, on various hormone treatments, having all sorts of scans, which have thankfully all led to good news.

Or at least, as is the best we can hope for post breast cancer, the absence of bad news.

Which is all I can ever hope for come March myself. And all we can ever hope for anyway.

So I wish Bette the continued absence of bad news, and S's Mum. Any myself. And everyone else.

Lets all have no more bad news, ever again.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Saddle Up

In early November we had a couple of days off with some friends of R's who were over, enjoying their first African experience.

One of the activities we indulged in was a riding safari down the banks of the Nile in Jinja, courtesy of Nile Horseback Safaris.

The company set up some time ago, by a great woman called Natalie who used to be a safari guide and overland truck driver. When she was pregnant with her daughter she decided that heading off on safari was possibly no longer a practical career choice but investing in a bunch of horses and doing guided horseback rides around Bujagali Falls in Jinja would be.

Now her daughter is two and a half years old, she has 16 horses (each of whom she schools at least 3 times a week), several others to help her guide the rides, and a thriving business.

Having said all that, it's still not something most people do when they head to Jinja for a few days which is a shame. I know I have ridden all my life, but I was with three others who hadn't and they were put on perfectly well behaved horses and had a great time.

R had ridden a few times but all before the age of eleven. He's forty next year so it's a while ago now. The other two had never ridden before, except maybe a pony trek once in the dim and distant past.

They were riding good looking, well fed and healthy horses (always a pleasure to see at a commercial operation) who were incredibly well schooled but not 'old riding school nags'.

As for me, I was on an impeccably behaved but slightly more spritely three year old who had only just been broken in the previous six months.

And the ride was fantastic - two long hours through bush and river-side scenery, riding through narrow paths through maize fields and cassava plots, past the beaten red earth backyards of local dwellings filled with chickens, goats and smiling children, up hills for dramatic views of the river and Lake Victoria, glistening in the distance.

Again, I'm romanticising the poverty on display at every turn. But it felt less voyeuristic than passing through local villages and mudhuts has done before, for two reasons.

Firstly, we were clip clopping softly along the red earth tracks and not speeding past in a 4wd, belching diesel and sending wildlife and livestock bleating to the sides of the road.

Secondly, because the stables put back in what they take out, and more.

As my young steed twisted his neck to tear off a passing maize stalk, I winced in embarrassment and asked Nathalie how they offset the potential damage caused to crops by riding through the fields. Apparently they buy pretty much all the maize from this area, as well as buying up the maize leaves and stalks - a part of the plant that normally gets wasted and is usually burnt. The horses love it (as my mount proved, time and time again, trying to snatch the bit away from me so he could grab a quick mouthful) and it proves a good substitute for grass in the dry seasons. And the farmers love it too - suddenly being able to command a price for what was previously a useless part of the harvest.

The goodwill from the locals was evident, with women, elderly men and young children smiling out from doorways and gardens. Children shouted "Jambo!" (we were further East than Kampala so more young kids will be much more likely to speak Swahili). And the rides are always accompanied by a local rider and guide who can speak to the children in Luganda (or Swahili) and warn them if they crowd a horse known to kick, or behave in any other way which may be dangerous.

The guide we were with had only been riding for two years but had the look of a really experienced, confident rider. I asked him what his family thought of him riding horses for a living. They thought he was a little bit crazy, apparently. Ugandans don't have a heritage or culture of riding, the horse is not a common animal here. The idea of someone riding one is very unusual.

So much so, that when the horse I was on was first out on a ride, local people mistook it for a cow.

But then it is a skewbald, i.e. a 'coloured' horse, as the Western world terms it (oh how these terms sit awkwardly with me now), with large brown and white markings.

Not dissimilar to certain breeds of dairy cow.

Anyhow, here are some of the photos. All in all, it was a great afternoon and something I would highly recommend. A beautifully serene way to see the countryside and byways of Bujagali Falls.

City Lights

When darkness falls over Kampala, darkness falls properly.

Whilst one part of the city looks like the skyline of some mid-western US city - a clutch of modest skyscrapers topped with neon lights, advertising the local beers - another is lucky if one in ten households have electricity and relies on a combination of paraffin lamps and candles to light their homes and businesses.

It's a romantic sight, but probably less so when you're the one straining your eyes to see and all you have is a candle in a jar.

But it does makes for great fun when you're bored on the way back from Jinja with an automatic camera and you're messing about with the effects you get from light trails...

(The yellow lights are generally paraffin lamps, candles and single energy saver bulbs in shacks lucky enough to wired to the mains. The red lights are boda boda brake lights, or perhaps a car's sidelights. The blue lights? Search me - there must have been some neon in there somewhere...)