Monday, July 01, 2013

My journey to (y)U(c)K and back

If you you'd like the brief version, skip through the intro/background go to the Conclusion at the end:

On the 18th of June this year I flew to London, spent a week coughing into toilet rolls at a cost of R500 per day before flying back on the 26th.  Why did I do it?

It started with an email that I received on May 1.  An invitation to present at the "London Symposium on Climate Change at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, London, 22, 23 and 24, June, 2013." The venue: central London, a stone's throw from Buckingham Palace, a short walk from Piccadilly Circus...and some of the world's top academics on the field of Climate Change were invited to participate.  This sounded like a big deal, and a challenge. 

Coincidentally at the same time that this opportunity arose I had been watching a fascinating 15 part documentary on the History of Britain (narrated by Simon Schama) which had really activated my interest in Britain.  Now I had a chance to possibly visit historic sites like Hastings, Skara Brae and Westminster myself...

The other thing that attracted me to the idea was I had just written a cover story for FINWEEK on electric vehicles, and had been shocked, appalled and alarmed by the trends in the auto industry (84 million cars built annually, 19 million in China (and climbing radically) 230 000 cars produced daily, and of these less than 1% plug-in hybrids). At the same time I discovered something I hadn't realised - the number 1 man made contributor to CO2 emissions, and thus climate change, was cars. In other words, you and I, ordinary middle class people were doing daily and lasting damage to our climate, and car sales are rocketing upward more than ever. Even worse, emissions from electricity were set to become the world's largest in the future, which means even if we achieved the impossible (buying a majority of plug in/EV cars) we'd be in no better a position.  Also, coal production is higher than ever, and guess who is building the world's largest coal-fired power station right now?  Us - South Africa.

I had also written extensively on the subject, so I submitted an abstract (you can view it here) and it was accepted.  Here's when things started to unravel.  I discovered that I had to register for the symposium and the fee was 420 pounds.  Did I want to present so badly that I was willing to pay for it?  No, but what if I could get a company or publication to sponsor me, or meet me halfway with the costs? But at the same time our local currency suddenly lost more value than it has in years.  It went from R13-R14 to the pound to over R16.  420 pounds meant R6000 for the privilege of presenting.


I took it one step at a time.  I completed my research for the presentation, and set about doing a rough draft.  I had a doctor friend that regularly presents these sort of things to academics have a look at my presentation and listened to and applied her advice. I enquired about flights, and found a cheapie (with the catch that you flew via Dubai) for less than R7400.  Then I said to myself:  
what if the presentation is just the first step of a much bigger trip.  What if I crossed the channel in time to catch the 100th Tour de France on the stage through Mont Saint Michel?  What if I went to watch Wimbledon?  What if I visited Scotland and did some firsthand research on the western seaboard and the outer islands for the book I'm working on?  What if I travelled to Iceland (on the same Schengen Visa I'd get for travel to France...)  Obviously all of this would carry a price tag, but what if I could find a way to pay for it?  go! magazine said they'd pay R8000 for a portfolio of Iceland.  I contacted Eskom, Nissan Leaf, Mercedes Benz - to discuss some sort of arrangement to help cover my expenses (in return for whatever they wanted). I contacted inflight magazines to do travel stories on London, Scotland and France. I did some work for a British technology magazine (that sent me on a 3 day conference at the Hyatt in Johannesburg) so that I could stow a few hundred pounds before my arrival.  And I worked hard at some big stories so that I had some extra cash to burn.

But then things started to go wrong.  I wasn't able to get a Schengen Visa.  Even though I'd applied immediately after getting my UK Visa back (and I'd spent an additional grand to get it done via the express route) the earliest appointment I could get was a week before my flight.  I thought I might try the Schengen application whilst in the UK, but the earliest appointment I could get there was in July.
I also received a programme for the symposium and although some of the presenters were undoubtedly experts, others looked like graduates, and I felt like I had been squashed in with the "also-rans" on the last day.
It made me wonder, is this a sort of elaborate ego-stroking money-making scam, or am I being cynical?
And on the 11th of June I fell ill with the flu; it was the first time I'd gotten sick in over a year.  Actually a few days earlier I had a sudden cold which flared up and blew over after three days.  So why should this second bout be any different?


Until a few hours before my departure, I was still uncertain whether I should go.  What if I arrived in London only to get even more sick?
Worse still, I hadn't completed work on my presentation in the last week, as I was trying to rest and recover for my trip.  In the end I had to hire a car, because my car had hit a rock and the damage was manifesting in an increasing left front wobble that was getting worse every time I drove.

When I handed in the little car at the airport they found two hand long scratches along the passenger door.
The flight was incredibly long and on the last section, because I'd been blowing my nose so vigorously, I ended up with an epic nosebleed; I departed Bloemfontein at around 8am, flew at 2pm, and arrived at my domicile in London the next day at around noon. I didn't feel much enthusiasm being where I was, I thought I might need 2-3 days rest and then, once well, I could start to enjoy the trip.

At the same time, I still didn't feel strong enough to get to grips with my presentation, although I still spent several hours each day working on it.  A friend I'd last seen in Thailand stayed only 3 stops away from where I was, but I didn't feel strong enough to see her on the one day she said she was available (so I ended up not seeing her at all).

A few aspects that were stressing me out beyond belief were:
- after the Scotland leg I was supposed to spend a week with a friend in Ireland and a week with a friend in London
- the friend in Ireland sent me an ambiguous message on the day I left, or the day I arrived in London which suggested a complete change to our agreed arrangements (this turned out to be a misunderstanding, but this was only sorted out several days later)
- neither friend was clear on which week I could stay so I hadn't made any travel arrangements from Scotland (and it was unlikely I'd be able to stay in touch or make arrangements whilst on the Islands).  Should I return from Scotland to London or make the very long journey from Edinburgh to Waterville (southern Ireland)?
Should I return from Scotland and stay in London for a another week, and then go to Ireland before my return flight from London?
- the friend in London had a birthday and I simply heard nothing from her for the following few days
- my travel agent assured me that I could simply change my ticket and fly back whenever suited me, except once I arrived I found NO flights available, and those that were required expensive upgrades.  One first class ticket cost R79 000.
- the initial train I intended to take to Scotland via Stirling seemingly disappeared from the roster and it was far from clear how or when or if I should make the journey as the time to book approached.
- where should I return to from Scotland?
- at the same time that I was attempting to make a train trip to Scotland, I was trying to find out how to get back to South Africa
- after assuring me on the Friday that there was plenty of space, my travel agent emailed me on the Monday to say that there were no more economy flights to SA (for 3 weeks up until my departure date), and if I wanted one I'd have to go to the airport myself and plead my case
- all this uncertainty coupled with being sick and running out of time simply compounded the feeling of stress filled uncertainty.

So I found myself in the awkward position of just having arrived in London, and when I needed to be focused on my presentation, I was worrying about how and when I'd be flying back, the possibility of changing my air ticket, and sorting out accommodation for the last two weeks.  And the sickness only got worse.
By the time the symposium started my priorities had changed significantly.  I was already thinking of simply trying to salvage the trip; if I could rest and recover, then I could simply do the 10 days in Scotland (which had already been paid for) and return home.
After missing the first day of the Symposium it was looking unlikely that I'd be healthy in time even for the Scotland trip.  It didn't seem like a good idea to be spending upwards of R500 a day (translating to R15 000 for the full term of the ticket) on being sick.
Missing the 2nd day of the Symposium was a mistake I felt at the I now had no clue what the standards were of the other presentations and how mine held up.  I was due to present on the 3rd day, but felt that presenting on something with no fore-knowledge whilst still thick-headed and not thoroughly rehearsed (whilst fighting off a cough) in the posh environment of the Cambridge Club just wasn't going to work. At the same time a few other people had cancelled, effectively making me the sole candidate for the 3rd day.


Did I make the right decision in going?  I knew I was taking a risk and it's always easier to speculate in hindsight.  I did unfortunately turn down shooting a wedding, and missed covering a lovely story for Wild magazine (which would have meant staying in a seaside cottage at Robberg).  I gambled that since I'd already been sick for 2 weeks, and was starting to feel stronger, what were the odds that I'd be sick for much longer?  It turns out, when you fly long haul, those odds very much turn against you.

So did I make the right decision in leaving the UK?  It's 4 days after returning now and I'm still not feeling 100% well.  I seem to have some sort of painful sinus infection, which is interfering with my hearing.  My cough has improved, but I'm still not 100%.  I still feel a little dizzy and out of breath.

Who is to blame for this mess?  Not who - what?  The flu.  For a lot of the time I was sick I thought it would take "1-2 days, or three at the most" and then I'd be fine.  3 weeks have passed. I do feel like I did very well in difficult circumstances to quickly get things arranged on multiple fronts as best I could, and in that sense I think I've demonstrated what could be achieved in future.

Do I think I should have given the presentation?  No, the standards required for academic papers are high, and besides, having not attended at all means I should get 50% of my registration money back.

Do I wish things had worked out that I was able to give the presentation - absolutely.

What have I done since being back in SA?  I've been working on my book.  I've also received an order I made before I left on Amazon...and am busy reading those books.  Here's one of them:

And I've read this sort of crap. It shows to what extent we're still in the dark about our own activities, and why this sort of thing is happening right now and will continue to happen.
I'm also going to try to get the message I've prepared and researched into the media.  I've contacted a local radio station and we'll see what comes out of that.  I'll also try to publish my slideshow online so that you can view it for yourself if you wish.

A few positives that came out of my trip -
I experienced London's transport system and emerging at London Bridge and seeing The Shard, walking to and over London Bridge was quite a thrill.  It is quite a strange sensation being in the First World where so many people walk around, and the city is so well integrated, and then flying to the sticks where such a large proportion is poor, and we all insist on driving everywhere.  It was odd going on the Gautrain for the first time after spending a few days getting around London solely on the basis of buses and trains.  In the UK it's quite normal not to even own a car.  Same in South Korea and dozens of other countries. In South Africa it's unthinkable. One realises how fatally car dependent we are in this country at a time when the petrol price is about to break records again
I'm sure things were different when my great grandfather left the Netherlands to come to Cape Town; I wonder if he would make the same choice today?  Given the political, economic and social changes since the 1920's.

I had an incredible view of the world's tallest building on my return flight.
I think our hubris is tied to the landscape and how we occupy it.  Building spectacular (and spectacularly expensive and inefficient) buildings is as spectacularly dumb as continuing with the project of suburbia.  Nowhere is this dumber than in Africa, where even the shanty towns want to mimic the one house, one piece of ground idea.  It's a system based on cars and cheap energy.  You can't have a system like that and hope to link it up to public transport, its just not dense enough.  The result is you put people into a living arrangement that makes no sense - it takes a long time to get to, it's expensive to provide utilities and security, and they can't afford it anyway.  That system is obsolete.

Oddly enough with the exception of one hour, I spent the entire week on my own (and not the happiest week of my life) whilst staying in London, which offered me the chance to do some soul searching.  I've emerged with a much stronger resolve to get my book published, and to get myself physically back into the sort of shape where I see myself.  I've also come away with the realisation that getting to wherever you want to go in the world (even as freelancer) is easier than it seems.  One simply has to make a choice (and give yourself sufficient time).  Where to next?  Canada...or Iceland...Aconcagua...or Mozambique.  Or the nearest mountain range.


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