Tuesday, 25 October 2016

It's A Family Affair


That one word holds so much meaning and emotion for people that it is hardly surprising to find that family units are rarely simple or perfect or describable things. If you know someone who claims to have a ‘perfect’ or ‘simple’ family then you know a liar.

It is often a ‘loaded’ word. One which infers what you should do, how you should behave. I do not like being told what I should do or how I should behave. I like to take the word "family" and fit it around what it means to my life and the people I love. I do not believe in the tribal, Mitchell-esque, loyal-to-the-day-that-I-die and ostracised if I am not, model one iota. I would like to think I am intelligent enough to judge for myself what family means to me and I absolutely will not be made to feel guilty for that.

Platitudes Ahoy

My family is absolutely, 100% dysfunctional. And I bloody love them for it because, guess what folks? It makes them human.

My central family group could be defined as the people who will invariably sit round my mothers table for a Sunday lunch and treat the place like Picadilly Circus, swanning in and out, pillaging for food and tea and begging for trousers to be turned up (or is that just me?) and it consists of my mom, my step-dad, my brother and sister in law, two step sisters plus their partners, my Nana, my step-nan, my nephew and my niece. Oh, and my husband of course, who manages to cope with the eccentricities of us all, so different to his own, quieter and much smaller brood.

Only four of these people are blood related to me but it matters not a jot, I love the bones of all of them. However, I remember when my (then) 7 year old nephew asked me whether I was blood related to one of my step-sisters and it suddenly became a bit tangled. He was at that age where he was seeking to figure out how it all fits together. I didn’t blame him for being confused; our tribe is a bit of an unorthodox jumble to say the least.

It is the one social grouping in life which we do not choose, but inherit. A very close friend of mine always says ‘friends are the family we choose for ourselves’ and I think this is bang on the money. I have written extensively about friendships and how I think they should work in an earlier post and to my mind my friends are indeed the family I choose. Many of them know me much better than the majority of people I share actual DNA with and I value them as highly as members of my family. I would also add that depending on your workplace, colleagues are an additional ‘familial’ group in your life. My team at work spend more time with me than anyone else does and invariably some of them know my day to day life very well.

This applies even more so now that Stu and I live 10,000 miles away from where we grew up. Our Adelaide (and Australia in general) friends have become a massive safety net, a reliable infrastructure and a source of untold support and pleasure since we moved here nearly 4 years ago. 

With our blood relations it stands to reason (as we have no choice in the family group we are born into) that some of these people you would never naturally cross paths with or choose to spend time with. This is normal. Obligations to stay in touch only mean something and work if you actually happen, purely by luck, to genuinely like the person anyway - but this is not a given. 

We understand this dilemma even more now that we live so far away, on two levels; firstly, maintaining relationships is much harder and we sacrifice many hours a week to keeping in touch with people in the UK via Skype. Also, whenever we visit the UK we spend all of our time visiting people and catching up and it feels NOTHING like a holiday (it pisses me off enormously when people suggest that is what a UK trip is). It's brutally honest to say this, but intense catching up in this way often means repeating the same thing over and over again (for us) and as time goes by some friendships just don't weather the distance. Increasingly, our lives are so different and so hard to relate to that conversations can be reduced to platitudes and small talk unless you (and they) make a huge effort. It really does sort the wheat from the chaff whether you want it to or not.

Going back to central family groups though, the ones you are deeply embedded in and (unconditionally?) love - essentially your parents and siblings. You may be given a place within this for free as a child but as an adult, I believe that you earn your place in a family. In the same manner you can also lose it. To keep it healthy you have to nurture it, like any relationship.

This means that when you screw up or let go or lose contact there is generally always a way back, but it takes work on both sides, forgiveness and the ability to move on and stop raking up what happened in the past. Unfortunately some people are simply not equipped to do this. In fact, some people believe holding a grudge is an Olympic sport.

What matters to me is the well-being of my central group. After that I have a lot of time and love for other members of my family and would always do what I can for them if they needed me, although I may not see them or speak to them on a frequent basis. Then there are the members I do not really know but have nothing against and will happily be civil to. Finally there are those that I literally, teeth grittingly tolerate at events where I cannot escape. Now, be honest, you just read that and mentally identified which members of your family fitted which group. That’s fine! That’s normal.

Unless you live in cloud cuckoo land of course where everything is awesome and everybody loves each other and lashings of ginger beer flow freely and people really say ‘golly gosh’. 

Anyway, blood means nothing unless you are lucky and I cannot tell you how lucky I feel to have my step dad in my life. To say he is ‘like a father to me’ is wrong. I already have a dad and he is ace and I love him loads. My step dad gives me a ‘bonus parent’ role, one which is brilliant because you get the best bits from both a best friend and someone you are allowed to ask to fix your car and know they will do it because they love you. My parents divorcing was a blessing, both are now in happy, healthy relationships and I have two ‘bonus’ parent roles, both of whom I love. I was lucky.

My mom is an amazing person in so many ways. She is an amazing role model to me as a woman and the person I always want to run things by in my life. We can quite happily spend hours on skype talking about anything and everything. As I get older I value this more and more. As she gets older I find myself adopting the parent role with her more and more (“you really should stop smoking/go to the doctors about that/stop reading the Daily Mail”), I can amusingly see she does the same with her mother, my beloved Nana. The three of us would often sit and chew the fat when I lived in the UK and I am glad I got to do this. I miss it, living this far from home. This mother-daughter-grand daughter relationship is precious to me but not because we are blood related – that is incidental, but it gives us the basis of a bond which we choose to embrace and enjoy.

Sadly, human nature means that people are not naturally inclined to just get on. Life was not meant to be simple and the Middle East would be a fantastic holiday destination if everybody would just chill the fuck out. Really.

So…..there was a period, a few years ago now, which was difficult in our family for various reasons, mainly due to the aforementioned human nature issue. I spent the whole of 2009 and 2010 feeling like a cornered tiger protecting it’s young in relation to my parents, defending them and trying to repair damage and hurt. I had many difficult conversations with members of the family and it was a tough road for a long time, but we got through it. On the plus side I think we could probably field a family team at the next Olympics for the Holding-a-Grudge relay. This guide suggests sensible solutions to unresolved family conflicts – unfortunately it takes both sides to make a resolution happen and I am thankful that we got there in the end on the headline issue at least. Other issues continue to rumble on which assures me that we are indeed normal.

No human being is perfect. All of us make mistakes, say things we don’t mean, can be downright hurtful to the people we love and occasionally behave like complete and utter imbeciles. I know I have in the past and I am sure I will again at some point. Admitting it is easy when you put it in context, apologising, picking up the pieces, moving on and drawing a line under it is harder. And far more painful. And sometimes needs time. But it is never really a closed door until you make it so.

And I guess this is my point. Families come in many shapes and sizes. Some are pretty conventional, some are not. All will at some point and on some level go through crises. It is highly normal for Auntie X to not be speaking to Cousin Y or some kind of variation of this. You get arseholes, idiots, absolute gems, comedians, good eggs, bad apples, princesses, petty thieves, dictators, diplomats and the perpetually vacant. It is sort of like the most recent (UK) coalition government but closer to home.

How you make it work is entirely down to you. Stressing about it will get you nowhere. Black and white thinking will not help one jot. Holding a grudge is the greatest symptom of the narrow minded and should be avoided. And sharing blood does not determine ranks of importance within your life, nor should it.

Tell the people you love that you love them as often as you can, spend as much time with the people that matter as possible whether they are blood related or not. Tolerate those you have to and avoid the ones that cannot be tolerated and take no regrets to the grave because seriously, people, life is too short.  

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Africa – Part 4 – Kruger National Park

After two nights at Shalati we were back on the road with another fairly early start that involved taking breakfast with us in paper bags (how exciting!). Stu and I shared the back seat with Vlad on this first day in Kruger and it was a great opportunity to learn about he and Michaela’s lives in New York and their history as a couple. Stu and I came to have a great affection for this pair with whom we had a lot in common despite leading very different lives. I loved listening to them chat to each other half in English and half in Russian with seemingly no logic to the changeover points (though there clearly was to them!).

Anyway, we were only about an hour from the gate of the Kruger that we were going to enter through and so we barely had time to gauge what was in the paper bags (boiled egg in a confined space anyone?) before we were in the Kruger proper.

This was a slightly strange day as we had been on two game drives in game drive vehicles over the preceding days and so now, travelling through another reserve, but in a vehicle that wasn’t really designed for the purpose, the experience felt a little restrictive. For the keen photographers (this would be Vlad, Stu, Daryl and Tony who between them must possess every size lens known to man) it was difficult to get the good shots with both reflection from windows and the cramped conditions to take into consideration.

On this day I pretty much decided I was just going to be “in the moment” and stop worrying about photos – partly for the logistical reasons described above and partly because I was trying to make a conscious effort to engage with life around me without a screen of any kind as a filter. I am aware that I spend far too much time looking at my phone/ipad than I do actually soaking up events around me and sometimes, especially on this kind of trip-of-a-lifetime, it feels empowering and liberating to choose to create memories first hand instead of capturing them on a device of some kind for later reflection. For that reason I have used Stu's (very impressive!) photos throughout this post.

We entered the Kruger and stopped for coffee and bathroom breaks at a little lodge just inside, there were monkeys in the trees all around and the coffee was actually pretty good for a roadside stop. While we were stood drinking our delightful beverages a family of warthogs crossed the road in front of us, we were definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Pumba (Warthog) in Kruger

And so, we made our way through Kruger park, delighting in the amount of zebra, giraffes and elephants we saw, which were in abundance. There were heaps of birds too, but I have to admit I find it very difficult to get excited about birds and kinda zoned out while people snapped various eagles and vultures and tried to identify the varieties against the Kruger guidebook pictures.

For me, the highlight of this day will always be Oliphants River where we stopped on the bridge and were able to get out and enjoy the extraordinary view on both sides across the water. In one single sweep of the eyes it was possible to see a herd of elephants, a couple of rhinos, a group of hyena picking the bones of a kill, baboons, zebra, giraffe and various boks. It was truly incredible to see all of this wildlife just right in front of you, seemingly oblivious to the tourists on the bridge above, pointing hundreds of lenses at them and gasping in awe.

Tegan and I watching the elephants in Oliphants

Elephants crossing the bridge

How many animals can you spot here?

After a good half an hour watching the world of African wildlife go by below us, we made our way to Letaba Rest Camp which was to be our base for the evening. We arrived around 1.30pm and were pretty hungry but due to go out on a game drive at 4pm. Surely this was sufficient time to order and eat lunch in the branch of Mugg & Bean they had on site, right? Well, we cut it pretty close actually. By the time we had checked in, got changed and headed to the restaurant it was gone 2pm – but we still figured we had time and ordered a couple of flatbreads and a couple of beers. It was a beautiful spot as the deck overlooked another section of Oliphant’s river delta and far below us we watched some hippos swimming dangerously close to a large croc on the river bank.

Our traditional hut at Letaba

Beers arrived, other members of our group turned up and ordered food, Sam took this great shot of Stu and I – one of few of us together on the holiday, as it happens. 

Other people’s food started arriving, I chased up our flatbreads and was told they were on their way. Stu realised he should probably go stock up on water etc for our room as it was now 3pm and we might not get time before heading out on the drive. The rest of our group were now starting to head off to prepare for the drive. At 3.30pm our flatbreads arrived. It was a TIA moment I believe. I did wonder if they baked the flatbread from scratch, hence the delay. Oh well.

So, we jumped in the game drive truck and headed out into the Kruger once again. This game drive was interesting in the fact that the first hour and a half we thought we were pretty jinxed and we saw next to nothing. Elephants from a distance, the ubiquitous impala of course, a couple of antelope…nothing we had not yet seen before. And then, crawling along a track, just as the sun was setting, we saw it. Two leopards in a tree with a fresh kill.

Tony lost his mind. It was the funniest, sweetest thing in the world to hear him swearing his head off in shock and excitement at seeing the last (and most magnificent) of the big 5, at sunset, with a kill. Not just one leopard either, but a pair of them. Our driver went to turn the vehicle around and by the time we came back to the tree, one of the leopards was lying in the middle of the road, soaking up the heat from the tarmac. It was utterly magical to see these incredible beasts and they did not seem too bothered by the proximity of the vehicle, we stayed and watched them for a good 20 minutes before starting to head back towards the lodge.

And then, ten minutes later, Stu spotted two hyenas on the side of the road and shouted to the driver and we stopped. This was the first time we had been up close and personal with hyenas and they padded over to our vehicle and checked us out like potential prey which was intimidating and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My goodness they are bigger than you think and look like they are built of pure muscle. They had a good old sniff of our vehicle and eyeballed the occupants for a good few minutes before continuing on their way.

Being eyeballed by this guy...

It goes to show how the game drive experience can turn on a sixpence and you can swing from feeling resolved to seeing next to nothing to utterly on the ceiling with excitement in the space of five minutes. It also highlights the enormous role that sheer luck plays in each one – and it was for this reason that Stu and I decided you have to be in it to win it and went on literally every game drive option which we could.

Back at Letaba, Hardy was already seated at a long table with our driver Jan and a couple of our group who hadn’t done the drive, waiting to order food. The buzz in the room as we came back was incredible, everyone was so excited from what we had seen in our vehicle and everyone talking at once, I was desperate to hear what Sam and Merri might have seen from the other vehicle and it turned out they had seen a snake in a tree fairly close up so had also had a great night.

Dinner was another hugely TIA affair, which did not surprise Stu and I, given our experience at lunch. It took at least an hour to collate orders for everyone for both food and drink and then food came out sporadically, in a seemingly random order, over the next hour and a half. Stu and I had actually forgotten we had ordered a side of wedges to share and had both finished out mains when it arrived 20 minutes later. Oh the lols. Stu had actually been back to the lodge and had a shower between ordering and food coming out, such was his belief that there would be time, and he was right.

I decided, after finishing dinner, that I desperately needed a shower too and headed back, leaving Stu to pay for the bill. It will come as no surprise to hear that splitting the table’s bills to individuals (even though we all ordered on separate tabs) took an hour. I was starting to wonder whether Stu had gone for drinks with Hardy by the time he reappeared. I was sat outside our lodge with a bottle of wine, in my pyjamas, reading my kindle, when he finally came back looking bemused. A TIA end to a truly staggering day.

Next day we would be heading out of Kruger and up towards the Zimbabwe border, with one final stop at Mashovhela before we crossed the border out of South Africa.