Kolkata: The Victoria Memorial

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Several people told Craig and I that the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata was a “must-see” site. One of them told us to allocate an entire day since it was far from our hotel and there was just so much to see. Another told us we’d probably only need an hour to take in the site. I guess it really comes down to personal preference when visiting museums.

The Victoria Memorial was built as a memorial to the English queen, Victoria, after her death in 1901. The memorial is a large and stately white Makrana Marble building whose design has echoes of the Taj Mahal. It’s now a museum housing around 30 000 items and is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The building is surrounded by beautifully tended gardens which span 64 hectares.

So, that’s what the Victoria Memorial is. But what were my impressions of it?

Admittedly, it was our first full day in Kolkata, and I was still tired from the long flight. I was also struggling to adjust to the intense 34 degrees Celsius heat. And the site was crowded – it felt like there were people everywhere. So I wasn’t at my best as we wove our way through the throngs of people towards the entrance.

I was saddened to discover that the Victoria Memorial museum is what I’d consider an “old style museum”, where everything’s kept protectively roped off or hidden behind glass. I know I’ve been spoiled by the highly interactive museums in Poland which I’ve been to in the past few years.

Even though I’m sure I would have ben fascinated by the historic exhibitions at the Victoria Memorial, as a visually impaired visitor the whole experience was a lot like walking round a vast empty building. With the exception of a cannon, which I declined to touch. Like I said, I wasn’t at my best.

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I did enjoy climbing the precarious spiral staircase leading up to the balcony overlooking the main hall of the museum. It gave me a good sense of the size of the building and the height of its vast dome.

We had a few minutes to walk round some of the beautifully manicured gardens and laugh at the antics of the busy grey and white striped squirrels
As they dashed around amongst the tree branches. I’d have like to investigate the gardens a little more, but the unrelenting heat of the day chased us back to the comfort of our air-conditioned car all too soon.

It probably doesn’t sound like it, but I was glad I was able to visit the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and experience what it was like. But I’d love to ask the person who advised us to make our visit a day trip what they found that kept them so engaged for such a long time. Maybe I just missed out a whole lot of exhibits that would have captured my attention had I known they were there.

The Curious Puzzle of the Toothbrush and the Bottled Water

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No, I’m not turning my hand to writing mystery books Rather, this is my attempt to describe an unexpected challenge of not using tap water in India, which we’d been warned against by countless people.

Washing our hands with liquid sanitiser was no hardship – we’ve been doing it for ages with the severe drought in Cape Town. But can you imagine how tricky it is to brush your teeth with bottled water?

Obviously, it would be easy with four hands – one for the toothbrush, one for the toothpaste, one for the bottle of water and one to actually do what’s required. Sadly, like most humans, I had to make do with only two.

At the risk of over-sharing, here’s how I did it:

1 Open the bottle of water and the toothpaste.
2 Pour a small amount of water from the bottle into a glass and set aside for the moment – you’ll need it later.
3 Add toothpaste to the toothbrush and proceed to brush teeth as usual.

Up to now, you could manage with only 2 hands, but this is where it starts getting complicated…

4 With toothbrush in one hand, rinse mouth with water from the glass using your other hand. If you skipped steps 1 and 2, this is where you’d need the other two hands to open the water and pour some into a glass.
5 Then pour the remainder of the water from the glass over the toothbrush to rinse it.

It was by no means an ideal solution, and required a little juggling of various items from one hand to the other, but generally I found it worked okay.

Right up to the final day of our trip.

As I brushed my teeth on our final morning in Kolkata, I was contemplating how long it would take me to become re-accustomed to rinsing my toothbrush with tap water… and absentmindedly did just that!

Sigh.

Paws for Thought on Suitcases

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I know mom’s writing about her recent trip to India, so I decided to keep to her theme. From my own perspective, of course!

Even though mom’s back now, I want to go back to the day before she left – to that moment when I first noticed that the dreaded suitcases had emerged from the cupboard…

I don’t automatically detest suitcases. It’s not a Pavlovian response, by any means. But I do get very suspicious when I see them lying open in the bedroom. Because that’s when the uncertainty and the hopefulness begins.

You see, I only hate suitcases if mom isn’t taking me with her on her travels. Otherwise they’re a symbol of excitement and new adventures. The thing is, I only discover if I’m going along much, much later– she packs all the same things regardless of whether or not I’m going with her. So that doesn’t help me know how to react.

I can’t even tell by looking at whether there’s one or two suitcases involved. Because sometimes mom takes me, dad or both of us with her and sometimes she leaves us both at home.

So, it’s very hard for me to figure out if I should glare at the suitcases or not.

This time it turned out mom and dad were going, and I was being left behind with my doggy sisters and Aunty Claire. Which was okay. Only I miss mom when she’s away and I miss taking her for her walks. I just hope dad remembers to take her for walks when I’m not there. I mean, I trust him and all that, but just wish I could always be there to be sure.

And that’s why I only detest suitcases some of the time.

PS: Mom told me she’s probably taking me on her next trip, which will be when she performs at the Grahamstown Festival this year. I really hope she does!

A Visit to The Mother House

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From the title of this post you might suspect I’ve switched genres and started writing bad science fiction. I promise that isn’t the case.

The Mother House is the name given by locals to refer to Mother Theresa’s home in Kolkata, India. And that was the first site we visited on a day out in the vast and busy city.

When you enter the Mother House you’re enfolded in a marked sense of peace and tranquility. Considering the bustling nature of Kolkata – with bustling being quite a euphemism, believe me – the quiet is decidedly startling. I almost felt like breaking that quiet with a sudden noise or movement would earn me a reproving frown from some unknown person. Which isn’t to say the site is forbidding or unwelcoming. It’s not. Far from it. But it feels enclosed in a wonderful sense of calm.

The Mother House is neither large nor grand. Yet it contains an interesting range of rooms – a small chapel, the tomb of Mother Theresa, a tiny museum containing a few artefacts from Mother Theresa’s life and work, including an ancient wheelchair that she used for several years towards the end of her life before she passed away, after which it was given to another person in need.

Then, up a flight of stone stairs is Mother Theresa’s room, behind a locked gate so you can see the room in which she worked for many years, without disturbing anything. The room is small and simply furnished, yet is filled with filing cabinets and paperwork from the hundreds of correspondents and causes supported by Mother Theresa and her order.

At no time were we asked for financial donations. Certainly, if you wish to make a contribution to assist their work, it will be gratefully received, but there’s no overt requests anywhere in the Mother House.

When We’d spent a little time taking in the tranquility of the site, we started to walk towards the exit. We were approached by one of the nun’s, who wanted to know where we were from and asked us a little about ourselves. She is pictured with us in the image above. I can’t say whether this was usual, whether it was because we were overseas visitors, or due to my blindness, but it was interesting to have the opportunity to take a moment to talk to the nuns.

It was only much later that I found myself wondering how Mother Theresa had navigated that flight of stone stairs in her later years. I guess I could have asked one of the nuns, but sadly the question only occurred to me much later. Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to go back to The Mother House and ask my question sometime in the future.

Cautionary Messages – Trepidation or Excitement?

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“Don’t drink the water – don’t even brush your teeth with it unless it’s from a bottle!”

“It’s a very dirty city, and you’ll see signs of abject poverty every time you step outside your hotel!”

These were just two of a multitude of cautionary messages that came our way when we started talking about a trip to Kolkata in India.

Sure, there were also positive messages –you’ll love the food, the people are great, and it’s a city of complexities and contrasts… though admittedly that last one could be either positive or cautionary, depending on your interpretation.

So, it was with a little trepidation that I settled into my cramped airline seat on the long flight from Cape Town to Dubai on our first leg of our trip to Kolkata.

A little trepidation… and a whole lot of excitement!

I know that part of the anxiety about traveling to a new place is the uncertainty of what you’re going to find when you get there. But, for me, that’s what creates the excitement – the potential, the not-knowing, and the opportunity of discovering new places, experiencing new cultures and learning about different experiences.

Which is why excitement will always win out over trepidation for me.

As the plane taxied down the runway, I settled back sure in the knowledge that I was in for another grand adventure.

I hope you’ll join me as my journey to Kolkata unfolds. I’ll share my experiences, my thoughts, a few of the places we visited, and my version of the reality we discovered about those cautionary statements from friends and family.

So, buckle up and let’s go – Kolkata’s waiting!!

Going Solo

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Do you have any idea how bizarre it was for me to realize that I’m using my white cane to walk around independently for the first time ever?

Please don’t think I wasn’t taught to use a white cane when I first lost my sight. I was. But somehow the only time I used my white cane was on my lessons with the O&M instructor. Otherwise I asked family, friends, and fellow students to help me get around. Which is probably why getting a guide dog was such a revelation to me – I was able to walk around independently for the very first time.

In my defence, and in hindsight, I’d probably say that my inability… refusal? to connect with the idea of using a white cane was part of my adjusting to losing my sight. I was dealing with so much at the time, and learning so many new skills of living as a blind person, that my poor overworked brain just couldn’t cope with it all. And it was just easier to ask people to help me get around.

And that became the pattern. Even once I started working with a guide dog, on the rare occasions my dog wasn’t with me, I’d need someone to help me get to where I needed to go.

So, walking round my neighbourhood totally on my own, accompanied only by my white mobility cane, is such a profound difference for me.

It doesn’t mean I’m going to depend on my beautiful guide dog any less. I can’t even begin to find the words to describe the remarkable bond that exists between Fiji and myself – and how natural it feels to work with her. But it’s great that I’m developing cane skills for those times when she’s not able to be with me.

Talking about how natural working with Fiji feels, I found myself praising my white cane when I encountered a car parked on the side of the road on one of our walks… but at least I didn’t try to give it a treat for good behavior!

At least, not yet! ….

And now to move onto another topic for a while, in case you’re bored of hearing about my O&M lessons!

Taking Small Steps

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Walking on my own across the road to my neighbours house should be simple, right? I mean, it’s less than 10 metres. So, it should be easy.

Well yes, it should. But I’ve never done it

At least, not before my second Orientation and Mobility lesson with Golden Dzapasi, of the Cape Town Society for the Blind. Which is totally crazy, since we’ve always got on really well with the neighbours and I’ve visited the house tons of times. I’ve just never walked across the road entirely on my own. Someone’s always walked with me

Till now.

Not that I’m going to bother the neighbours all the time just because I can – that’s not the point. Besides, it’s not very neighbourly. But at least now I can get there if I need to.

And it’s quite liberating.

Now, if I could just find a way to reassure my guide dog that learning to use my mobility cane doesn’t mean she’s going to be out of a job…

Paws for Thought on Lions – No Matter What They’re Made Of

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There I was, guiding mom through the busy crowds at the V&A Waterfront when I got such a fright I almost tripped over my own paws. Which never happens… well, apart from that time I got startled by a bicycle changing gears right behind me and landed up splayed on the floor completely unintentionally.

The reason for my shock? Out of the corner of my eye I saw a lion…. Standing there in the middle of the Waterfront!

Now, I admit I don’t know a lot about lions. I’ve never met one, so I don’t know what counts as normal behavior for them. But it certainly looked like a lion, so I wasn’t going to get up close and personal in case it gobbled me up.

I was relieved when mom told me to walk past, though I did find myself checking over my shoulder a time or two, just in case the lion started to follow us. I wanted a little warning if we suddenly had to run for it!

Then, on our way back from our trip on the Cape Wheel, which mom told you about last time,
there were fewer people standing around the lion and mom obviously thought I might like to make friends. I’ll admit I was hesitant, but I do trust mom, so I thought I’d give it a try. But I was going to be really mad with mom if the lion gobbled me up, I assure you!

As I got closer to the lion I sniffed – I mean, if I did get out of this alive, at least I’d know what a lion smells like. But the lion didn’t smell like an animal at all – more like a wall, or a rock I recently found in the garden. Nor did the lion move so much as a muscle. It just stood there. And I began to think that maybe the lion wouldn’t gobble me up after all.

So, I decided to try and make friends. The photo shows me reaching up and sniffing the lion on the nose. Even though I was pretty sure it wasn’t a real lion by this stage, I still think that was very brave of me, don’t you?

But the lion didn’t seem to want to make friends. Even after I sniffed it on the nose it just stood there, as if petrified. And I know that’s the right word, because mom explained to me that petrified actually means to be turned to stone. She told me that when she explained that it was a stone statue of a lion and that I was never in any danger of being gobbled up.

So, I didn’t actually get to meet a lion. Or to learn how a lion smells. Or how they behave. And maybe stone lion’ statues just aren’t cut out to play. I just don’t know. But at least I didn’t get gobbled up!
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Up, Up and Away – Fiji and I Visit the Cape Wheel

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Sometimes I’d love to be able to read Fiji’s mind. Like when we were 40 metres above the ground on the Cape Wheel carousel in the V&A Waterfront.

I wasn’t sure how Fiji would react to being sealed into a fairly small compartment and then seeing the world disappear from beneath her paws. To be completely honest, I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to react to being sealed into a fairly small compartment and knowing the world was going to disappear from beneath my paws… um, feet. Especially since I don’t have a great head for heights.

When all’s said and done, both Fiji and I were absolutely fine with the experience. Fiji peered out the window with interest while the carousel made its first circle, then lay down and went to sleep. As for me, I found the entire experience wasn’t too bad, although I did have a moment when Craig and Fiji decided to exchange places and the compartment started swaying wildly. At least, I felt like it was swaying wildly – it was probably only moving gently. Anyway, to get over my stab of panic that we were about to plunge 40 metres to the ground and be crushed in the first ever Cape Wheel accident I grabbed for a handhold and held my breath. And everything was fine.

I was impressed at how well Fiji dealt with the experience – far better than I did – and she stepped off the ride wagging her tail happily. I still think she was more excited when coming face-to-face with a stone lion a short time later… but I’ll leave that story for her to share with you herself.

I did want to note that the Cape Wheel has several compartments that can accommodate people in wheelchairs – I was impressed with how well they’re accommodating the needs of travellers and sightseers with disabilities. And guide dogs, too. Though I would have liked there to be the option of an audio description of the view as the carousel rose and fell – after all, since there are 4 rotations in each ride there’s plenty time to describe the sights.

Overlooking the Obvious

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Have you ever realized there’s a better way of doing something you’ve been doing routinely for years?

There’s one room in my home that I avoid. It’s a fairly large, open space and, although I’ve lived in the house for years, I’ve always shied away from crossing that room. At least there is an alternative, even if it means I have to walk around through the passageway.

You may be asking why I go to these extraordinary lengths to avoid walking across that large, open room. Partly it’s because there aren’t “landmarks” to help me navigate it. Mostly, it’s because I know there’s a coffee table lurking somewhere in that space and it’s just waiting to leap out and bite me on the kneecaps. For those of you who’ve read my book, A Different Way of Seeing – yes, it’s that room, and that coffee table!

When I had my first Orientation and Mobility lesson with Golden Dzapasi, the O&M Instructor from CTSB (Cape Town Society for the Blind), I happened to mention my unwillingness to navigate the room.

And that was where we started. Golden had me walk round the perimeter of the room identifying each item of furniture as I encountered it. And that was when I realized I’d been overlooking an obvious solution to the problem…

Why was I trying to walk through the middle of the room at all? When I could take one or two steps to either side of the door and use the perimeter furniture to help me navigate the room? Not to mention keeping out of the way of that pesky coffee table?

The realization was simultaneously liberating and embarrassing. I mean, it’s a technique I use to navigate round other places without even thinking about it. And yet, it had never occurred to me in this specific room. In the week since that lesson I’ve been able to move around the room with speed and confidence… and not a single knee-bite.

All I can say is, that if that was the result of my first lesson with Golden, I can’t wait to see what other mobility skills he can teach me. Which reminds me, I have my next lesson today, so I’d best get ready…

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