Monday, August 23, 2010

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Survivor Port Elizabeth – by Nick van der Leek

2010 has been a year of amazing highs and lows, and there’s still spring and summer to come. Highs included winning a major settlement [and a moral victory] over my previous employer, AVUSA, traveling through Australia and recently, visiting the Waterberg in Limpopo and the Kruger Park for the first time. I also managed to publish articles for the first time in major publications like Getaway and Bicycling. I’ve recently interviewed inspirational people like Johan Botha, Sibusisu Vilane and Raynard Tissink.

The lows started with the loss of my job in September 2009, something I tried to turn into a positive. I applied for a job at Kagiso Media, it was a perfect fit and in the end it came down to just two shortlisted candidates. Me and Another Guy. Kagiso Media scratched heads for a few weeks and finally gave the job to Another Guy. When my lease – of a beautiful property in Mountain View, Johannesburg – came to an end in April this year, I was finding the freelance life to be a real struggle. I saw my national membership at Virgin Active go down the drain with my Medical Aid.

I considered myself really lucky to have an old friend [who happens to be literally a fair bit older than myself] offering board and lodging to me in Port Elizabeth, no strings, as long as I fed myself. This person had been following my blog, and writings, and my frustrations at work, so I felt the offer of a place to stay when I really needed it was a genuine offer from a real friend.

Before falling for this offer though; I went to an aunt in Hout Bay and went to check out the scene there. The house was in the middle of a major construction site, and for a few other reasons I didn’t think it would work.

So I took up the offer to leave Johannesburg for PE and sold off pretty much the entire contents of the place I was staying in. A double bed of R5000 got carried off by someone for R1300. A TV and DVD player for R300. Fridge, microwave, pots, pans, wine glasses, that sort of thing was simply left behind for the vultures. The point was to get rid of stuff within a month so that I could vacate the place and make the long distance trip in my car as light as possible.

I arrived in PE in such a terrible state of health I feared that I was suffering from a terminal disease. My mouth was swollen and covered in ulcers. After some prodding from my new housemate a few days after my arrival in mid-April, I went to see a doctor. Instead of a terminal illness the doctor said I was just incredibly run down. 3 Vitamin B injections and an AIDS test later I was right as rain. Here –in PE – I was able to focus on freelancing and felt the financial pressures dissolve slowly. I even bought a surf board. Then, in June, the editor of Getaway asked me to do a story on rest camps in Kruger [he assumed I was still in Johannesburg], and so I took a calculated risk. Knowing the trip was a long one and would be expensive, I tried to combine the Kruger piece with as many other pieces as I could to make the trip profitable. I got GM to sponsor me with a vehicle and a tank of fuel, and I offered photo shoots en route to my Facebook following. Quite a few people responded, but when the time came to hit the road, everyone fizzled. I took a gamble that the investment of courage, effort and a chunk of my own moolah was better than sitting at home updating my blog and hoping for work. In the end, although it was a successful trip, and although I managed to keep expenses minimal, I didn’t expect to cover over 5000km, and the fuel bill alone proved to be a huge financial knock.

Shortly after this, my use of free internet at my digs in Summerstrand dried up which complicated matters a great deal, and shortly after that my cellphone was cut off. Imagine trying to function in your job, wherever you are, without both your phone and internet connection. Really, think about it. So I quite literally had to start making phone calls from Telkom callboxes, something I last did in the 1990’s most likely. And I had to go to an internet café until I could arrange for a new internet connection. The frustrating part of all this was AVUSA still owed me around R30 000 in settlement money, but had mischievously diverted it to SARS [something SARS also said was naughty] which delayed the payment to me of the balance by around half a year or more. But there’s a saying, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Not having money in the bank isn’t going to pay your cellphone account. As it happened, I was just two months in arrears when some income for articles came through and I immediately repaid the principal, but the number had already been terminated. Thanks Vodacom.

You can imagine how difficult it is to operate, especially in my line of work, as a freelance writer, without constant internet access or even a cellphone. Fortunately, over several months I have managed to build up momentum from a steady flow of effort and a constant stream of email pitches to dozens of magazines. This means I currently have half a dozen or more articles already pitched and approved, I just have to write them and send them. Half of these require a lot of research, which means getting back online is an issue, and being able to call and respond to calls is essential.

But not knowing for certain where I am going to be living [explanation follows] means making tough choices, for example buying the more flexible but more expensive mobile broadband, but at least you’re able to use it wherever you go. The killer is the uncertainty overriding the situation. For a long time my housemate left me with the impression that the internet ‘might’ be reconnected and it was impossible to know when this might be and if this offer was true or not.

It was around this time that a large garrulous woman who works at a local internet café where I was forced to temporarily ply my trade started stirring up trouble. She started off telling me that she had seen the date of birth of my housemate, that my housemate had recently gone off anti-depressants, that she’d suggested my housemate see a Russian psychologist – that sort of gossipy stuff. She wanted to know when you start feeling better after someone you’ve been involved with commits suicide. All this from someone I didn’t know from a bar of soap.

My housemate and I had our own issues, but we were working through them. A lot of it seemed to come from the fact that there was very little direct communication to each other about our own concerns. Instead of communication there was quite a lot of misunderstanding, overreaction and outbursts. Miss Gossip seems to have been very involved in all the behind the scenes drama and thinking up ideas and issues to worry about. Everything came to a head when I left for the Billabong Pro in J-Bay in July without my 59 year old housemate, and she then phoned me while I was on the road to say she was kicking me out, cutting off my internet and so on. She thought I had gone without her on purpose.

To cut a long story short, the large woman who says she is a millionaire, who says she has just been diagnosed with cancer, and says she has also just bought a brand new car [but works in an internet café ‘because of boredom’] asks me about the tensions at home and then starts to offer me a big photography job, telling me she needs multiple huge A0 prints all over her mansion as well as for her guesthouses, and other sets of photos for her mother’s kitchen with lots of ‘red in them’, and by the way, there’s an open room available if I need a place to stay etc etc. This very large, overweight person says she’s working at the local internet café to keep herself busy, and then shows me a series of triangular scars the size of thumbnails; she says they’re self inflicted. But it turns out, this large overweight woman is not only a danger to herself, but in a big way, to me. Because thanks to her counseling, thanks to her spying on me while I am working, my housemate has become so concerned about my intentions she can’t stop worrying about where I am, what I’m up to, what I am saying to my girlfriend, do I intend to leave, am I going to steal her jewellery, and what more do I know about her besides her real age?

Of course it has been awesome living a stone’s throw from surf spots like Pipe and the beautiful running platforms that skirt the coastline here. Just a few days ago I finally took my bicycle in to Action Cycles to get it up and ridable for the upcoming triathlon season. I’ve circled all the dates. That was one thing I was looking forward to, especially after a recent 5km race.

So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’d like to stay where I am. I don’t mind paying what I can afford for the privilege. It is very hard to be consistent, to build anything, when you’re constantly uprooting. In the last 10 years I’ve spent 4 in Korea, 1 in Bloem, 2 in Cape Town and 2 in Johannesburg and part of the 10th in PE. I’d really like to stay put for a while. At least long enough to develop more momentum, to learn to surf, to do a few good triathlons again. I would love to do an Ironman here in 2011.

But I’ve been asked by my housemate to find somewhere else to live in the next few days, and I agreed to leave based on the offer of ‘a room available’; a deception courtesy of our friend the large lady. When I go to see the room at the time agreed the large lady is nowhere to be found and won’t answer her phone. When I look again on the internet, her and my housemate have deleted me as a friend on Facebook. So yes, it turns out to be a bogus offer.

Incidently the large lady’s fiancé committed suicide a few months ago, by walking all the way to the Van Staden’s bridge, and after her [guessing what he was about to do] smsing him ‘goodbye’ he jumped to his death. This doesn’t surprise me, she’s deceived me with bogus offers at great personal expense to me. It’s a tremendous waste of my time. I have been getting quotes around the city for this job which turns out to be nothing other than a ruse to gauge my intentions.

She betrays her own bosses confidence by relaying every chirp she makes on Facebook and why my housemate [her boss]isn’t paying her and why the other employees aren’t getting paid, and what the other employees are saying about her, and tattle taling whatever I say about her to my housemate and vice versa.

But spring is around the corner and things can only get better. In just a few weeks I’ll be headlining in at least 3 different magazines. The question is will I get to use my surfboard a few weeks and months from now. Will I be doing triathlons in a few weeks, or setting up shop elsewhere.

One idea, if I am forced to move, is to sell my car and since I’m mobile, why not move really far away again; head on back to Korea, a country I know fairly well after all. I’d also love to head in the opposite direction, to New Zealand, say. But I think these ideas just speak of an inner desperation to ‘get away’ to somewhere new where one can presumably make a fresh start in peace. That sort of escapism is expensive in the real world. The best thing I can hope for right now is to find I way to stay where I am, and in future, choose my friends far more carefully.

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