Gorlitz: My Experience of the Europa Marathon

Before you get the wrong idea, no, I didn’t run the Europa Marathon in Gorlitz -not a single step of it. However, I did get to experience more of this marathon than I usually do.

Here’s what usually happens when Craig’s running a marathon. The alarm goes off at some ridiculous time, Craig gets ready and leaves for the race, and I sit at home and get on with my own stuff. Then Craig comes home, showers, eats, and naps… and I get on with my own stuff. Sometimes I’m able to track what’s happening on the race on the Racetec IOS app, like I did when Craig ran the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra-marathon earlier this year. And once I even got to hand out baby potatoes to hungry runners since the route of the Peninsula Marathon goes right near our house. But usually it’s simply not practical for me to experience more of the races Craig runs.

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Which is why the Europa Marathon was such a great opportunity for me to experience more. Our apartment was 5 minutes from the start. In South Africa marathons start really early in the morning – usually around 6 AM. In Europe they start a lot later, which meant that the alarm went off at a more human hour, and we even had the time to have breakfast before Craig left. We were so close to the start/finish that I could make out the faint sounds of the announcers as they commentated on what was happening, but just couldn’t make out what they were saying.

When Craig finished the race he walked back to the apartment, Whatsapped me, and I met him in the foyer of the building. It was a lot easier me climbing down the 3 floors than it would have been for him to climb up them having just run 42.2 kms! And then we went to enjoy the post-race festivities together.

I can’t really comment about what happened on the race itself. That’s for Craig to share if he decides to blog about it. But he certainly had lots of stories to share– like the people who gave him a much appreciated beer on the route, and his reflections on the difference between the crowd support compared to the Athens Marathon or those he runs in Cape Town. But, like I said, those are his stories to share on his own blog.

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What I can share is how much fun it was for me to be able to experience the atmosphere at the end of the race. As I sat there sipping my glass of wine I was able to listen to what was happening around me. Runners being enthusiastically welcomed by supporters and the commentator as they crossed the finish line. Fellow participants sharing their experiences, even if they lacked a common language to do so – you’d be amazed at how much communication is possible from simply having shared an experience. And the laughter and chatter of all those who came to be part of the event. For once, I was able to experience the ambiance that Craig does at several of his races.

I don’t yet know which overseas marathon Craig plans to do next, or how the experience will be for me, but I’m confident it’ll be a lot of fun!

Come and Join Us – Women’s Day Lunch for SA Guide-Dogs Association

I’ve lost count of the organisations, schools, community groups, and events that Fiji and I have spoken at on behalf of the South African Guide-Dogs Association since we started working together. Each event is special in its own way – from the pre-schoolers who will make a semblance of listening politely while desperately curbing their excitement till they can play with Fiji, to the recent 60th birthday party where the guests were asked to make a contribution to Guide-Dogs in lieu of birthday gifts. But I think the most memorable Guide-Dogs Association event I’ve been asked to speak at has to be the annual World Sight Day fundraising dinner in October last year. It was a glittering event and Fiji and I were proud that we were able to play a small role in helping to raise R800 000 for this amazing cause.

I suspect the Women’s Day lunch on 18 August will be another such glittering event. And, since Fiji and I will be sharing the stage with a woman whose work I really admire – Abigail K, The Confidence Crusader – I can only imagine what a fun and inspiring day it’s going to be. Avril, who’s organizing the event tells me there will be some exciting raffle and spot prizes and, from the few she’s mentioned, I agree they’re pretty awesome!

Details for the event are in the attached flyer.

I really hope you’ll be able to take a break from your busy schedules and join us for a relaxed and uplifting ladies luncheon for an amazing cause.

And, if that’s not reason enough, I’m sure there will be plenty guide dogs and guide dogs in training in attendance to make the whole experience just that little bit more special – I know for sure that Fiji will be there!

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Introducing Puppy-Dog

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I asked mom if I could write blog 200, and was upset when she told me it had already been posted – but not so upset that I’m not wagging like crazy at the chance to write this article instead.

So, today I’m going to be telling you all about a doggy friend of mine. No, this isn’t a post about my brand new sister, Allie. I want to get to know her a little better before I introduce her to you. Otherwise it’d be a bit like me writing a review of a book I hadn’t read. And yes, I do know I’m a dog and don’t often read books, let alone review them, but I do sometimes get to listen along when mom is listening to an e-book by audio, so the comparison isn’t as unlikely as you may have thought.

I actually want to introduce you to my small, fluffy toy dog friend, Puppy-Dog, who travels with mom when I can’t. Puppy-Dog is my proxy when mom travels overseas – it helps me to know she has a guide dog with her, sort of.

Dad found Puppy-Dog wandering around a shelf in a supermarket in Barcelona, Spain, about 6 years ago and she followed him back to the apartment where dad and mom were staying. Since then Puppy-Dog has gone with them on all their overseas adventures. She tries to get herself into photographs of the places she visits – and she’s pretty good at getting it right, too!

In fact, Puppy-Dog has so many photographs from her overseas trips over the past few years that she has her own blog. You can subscribe at www.puppy-dog.co.za

But she doesn’t stop there – Puppy-Dog also tries to hijack mom or my Facebook profile while she’s traveling and post pictures. In fact, she’s even been known to steal dad’s iPhone and post from his Facebook at times – not even I’ve managed to get that right!

A few people have asked me why Puppy-Dog didn’t post any photos during her recent journey to Germany and Poland. She told me to let you know she does have photos but she’s waiting for mom to help her write the captions since she’s too small to type. Besides, she’s actually only a stuffed toy guide dog, so she probably isn’t as good at spelling as I am – but please don’t tell her because it might upset her!

So that’s me for this time. And, while I didn’t get to write blog 200, at least I got to write number 201!

Be My Eyes – A Helping Eye for the Blind

Bme logo rgb lightSo, here we are at blog 200 – if anyone had told me back in June 2015 that I would surpass the 200 blog point I’d probably have laughed at them. I kind of thought blogging was something I’d do every now and then when I had something important to share. And maybe that’s still true. It’s just that I seem to have a fairly constant supply of important things to share with you.

Like the subject of today’s blog – an app called Be My Eyes. Here’s the description of the app taken from their website: “Be My Eyes is a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers. On the app, volunteers assist blind and low vision users through a live video connection and work together to tackle challenges and handle a wide range of tasks. The app harnesses the power of generosity , technology, and human connection to help blind and low vision people lead more independent lives. Be My Eyes is accessible in more than 150 countries worldwide and in over 180 languages. The app is free and available for both IOS and Android.”

You may be wondering how Be My Eyes benefits the lives of those with visual impairment. Well, here’s my response to that.

Even though it doesn’t happen often, there are times when having sight would simply make my life a little easier – finding something I’ve dropped on what suddenly feels like a huge expanse of open floor space, reading a document that isn’t in an accessible format, , or an actual print document. I’ve used Be My Eyes to find out what colour an item of clothing is – yes, sometimes I buy the same item in different colours because they’re just so comfortable. Or finding out the contents of a tin, without having to open it.

I agree totally with whomever it was who said that blindness is not about ability, it’s about access to information. And sometimes having a helping hand – or a helping eye – like Be My Eyes is what we need to access that information.

Here are some of my favourite things about Be My Eyes. Not only is the added access to information great, so is the range of languages spoken by the volunteers – including many of our Southern African languages. It’s quick and easy to get connected to a volunteer –there are about 15 times the number of volunteers as registered blind users. There’s no limit to the number or duration of data calls you make, though I’d think it’s only fair to tell the volunteer if you think it may be a long or complex task.

And here’s a personal story – a few weeks ago Be My Eyes was featured quite a lot on Facebook and several of my friends shared one of their videos on my wall. Another of my friends watched the video and signed up as a volunteer, though she told me she doubted she’d ever be called on to assist someone since there were so many volunteers already. Her first call came in a day or two later…

If you’re interested in finding out more about Be My Eyes, either to sign up as a visually impaired user, or as a volunteer, simply download the app from either of the app-stores find them on almost any social media platform, or take a look at their website – www.bemyeyes.com

Gorlitz – the Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

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One of the things I enjoy most about spending time in Europe is the ability to find local fresh produce markets. I have no idea if they really do, but it seems like these markets happen in most towns and even some of the larger cities – we found one in the middle of Paris once.

So I was delighted to discover that there was a market the day we arrived in Gorlitz. Usually these markets seem to take place once a week and host a sensory overload of mouthwatering scents from the array of local fresh fruits and vegetables. The market in Gorlitz was no different – mounds of ripe strawberries, mouthwatering tomatoes, crispy radishes, and a wide variety of other locally grown produce.

Of course, no market would be complete without a wide selection of locally-produced meats, cheeses and fresh bread. Or a number of food carts where diverse snacks and light meals can be enjoyed while you browse the market.

As you can imagine, Craig and I were overwhelmingly tempted by what was on offer. We bought salad vegetables, cheese and cold meat with the intention of eating some of our meals in the apartment where we were staying. After all, we were there for 4 days and it wasn’t like the market was going to be there the next day, was it?

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I’m sure you can imagine our surprise when we returned to the market square the following day and there the market was, albeit with fewer stalls! So it turned out we didn’t need to buy quite as much as we did on the first day.

To our credit, we did finish most of what we bought – with the exception of the lettuce, the seemingly never-ending box of strawberries, and one lone onion. Even though our plan to eat both breakfast and lunch in the apartment didn’t quite work out – there were just way to many tempting restaurants in Gorlitz – proving the old adage that the best laid plans of mice and men have a flaw, we were totally thrilled to be able to experience the market at Gorlitz and I wish we had the opportunity of enjoying this type of market culture back home in Cape Town.

Gorlitz – A Charming Start to our Adventure

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There’s something special about medieval towns. I don’t know if it’s the charm of cobbled streets, the beautiful old buildings, the sense that time flows a little slower than it does in a modern city, or a combination of all of those.

Whatever the reason, I found myself falling under the spell of the town of Gorlitz, our first stop on our recent trip to Germany and Poland, almost immediately.

Gorlitz is the eastern-most town in the region of Saxony in Germany, on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland. On the other bank of the river lies the Polish town of Zgorzelec.

The difference between the two towns is marked – Gorlitz is a beautiful, old medieval town. Zgorzelec, at least the parts that I experienced, appears to be more austere with streets lined with modern apartment blocks, as you can see from the photo taken from the German bank of the river.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the fortuitous location of the towns –neither Germany nor the Allies were willing to bomb the towns for fear of bombing their own people. So the towns made it through WWII with no damage.

Gorlitz is far from being a tourist location, which is part of its charm. Sure, it means that few of the restaurants have English-language menus, but that’s not a significant problem and ordering food in German or Polish soon becomes part of the experience. We found some delightful local restaurants, including one that had a maze, that I may write an entire article about in the coming weeks.

Considering it’s not one of the usual tourist stops, a surprising number of people in Gorlitz speak good English so it’s not hard to make oneself understood, though our smattering of German and Polish did prove useful on occasion.

In the past few years , Gorlitz has gained a degree of popularity as a movie location – the 2013 movie of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was filmed there, as was the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

So, if it’s not usually a Tourist destination, you’re probably wondering how Craig and I landed up in Gorlitz. We were there for two reasons. It seemed a great first stop on our road and rail trip from Berlin to Krakow. The timing also just happened to coincide with the Europa Marathon which Craig hoped to run – watch for a possible article on that as well.

That’s just a brief introduction to what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – it certainly was a fantastic place to start off our adventure and, if you ever find yourself in Saxony, I’d definitely suggest you give it a visit.

You’ll Never Believe What I Saw in the Airport!

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We were walking down (yet another) passageway in Schiphol Airport that was full of tired and grumpy passengers much like ourselves when we came upon a strange sight. It! was strange even for an airport, where I’m sure you’ll agree you can experience some very strange things

There, in a neat row, were a number of exercise bikes. Yes, in the middle of the airport. What’s more, people were queuing to use them. You don’t believe me? Well, read on…

One of the worst parts of overseas travel is how much time you spend in airports. Apart from the constant “hurry up and wait” aspect that sees travellers rushing from one place to another to stand around waiting for their flights, most airport activity tends not to be what I’d consider healthy – lots of eating, shopping, and sitting around. So it really seemed out of character to see people so eager to climb on an exercise bike in the middle of an airport. I mean, I knew cycling was popular in Holland, but this just seemed extreme.

Then everything was explained – these exercise bikes had been converted to let people charge their mobile phones…

And that was why tired, grumpy passengers were standing around waiting for a chance to clamber onto the machines. It had absolutely nothing to do with health or exercise – simply the desire to send one more WhatsApp.

And, as a totally unforeseen side-effect, they also lifted the tired grumpiness of one passenger just a little by giving me something to laugh about. But then, my iPhone battery still had charge…

(post in collaboration with travelstart)

How Quickly We Grow Used to Things

NewImageIsn’t it funny that my first article on my last three overseas trips have been about in-flight entertainment and, more particularly, audio described movies on that in-flight entertainment – or the lack thereof.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, audio description is a way that blind and visually impaired people can follow the action taking place onscreen. As the name suggests, the action is described in words along with the usual soundtrack of the movie. Sure, there are movies where the plot is driven by dialogue and we can follow more of what’s going on. But many movies – thrillers, action, horror, and cartoons, for example –are far more visual and it’s hard to follow what’s happening without help.

Admittedly I’m a fairly new convert to audio described movies but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve come to expect them to be part of the in-flight entertainment on a long distance flight. So I was distressed when I found no audio described movies on the 11 hour KLM flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam.

Maybe I’d misled myself into thinking all airlines had audio described movies on international flights simply because Emirates Airlines does. Granted, we haven’t used other airlines in a while for overseas travel. I’d love to know what other airlines also include movies that take the needs of their disabled passengers into consideration – please let me know if you’ve experienced any that do.

At least I had my trusty iPhone and book reader with me on my flight so I had plenty to keep me entertained. Still, I’d have liked to have the ability to choose whether or not to watch an accessible movie…

A Sign of a Great Leader

NewImageI believe one of the characteristics of a great leader is the ability to make people feel seen, heard and acknowledged. This was a skill that the late Nelson Mandela demonstrated regularly, as can be seen from the numerous stories of the way he engaged with people from all walks of life.

Tomorrow marks the centenary of the birth of the great Madiba and I’d like to mark the occasion by sharing the stories of the times I was privileged to meet the great man himself.

My first chance encounter with Mr. Mandela took place in the Student Union at the University of KwaZulu-Natal shortly before I lost my sight. At the time I was still able to walk around without a mobility aid, as long as I was careful where I put my feet – I could still see everything but everything was blurred, as if I was looking at the world through a thick pane of frosted glass. As I navigated my way down a short flight of stairs I realized that I had very nearly placed my boot-clad foot down on someone’s shoe.

I looked up with an apology poised on my lips – and found myself staring into the face of the great man himself. Those of you who know me well will know that I’m seldom speechless but the words of the glib apology I’d been about to utter simply vanished from my mind.

Mr. Mandela smiled and softly murmured “Bless you, my child,” and then entered the hall where throngs of students had gathered to hear him speak. ,

Two years later Mr. Mandela capped me when I graduated. By then I was totally blind and needed sighted assistance as I crossed the vast stage, was capped by Madiba and then moved to collect my degree to thunderous applause. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, friends told me later that there had been two standing ovations at that graduation ceremony – one when we were addressed by Madiba and one when I was capped. And yes, I did manage to avoid standing on his toes that time!

What I remember best about those two chance meetings was the sense of calm and serenity that surrounded Madiba, and the way he made me feel like I had his complete attention with just the power of his presence, his focus, and a few simple yet genuine words. On both occasions I was merely one person amongst hundreds of others, yet he made me feel seen and acknowledged – a lesson that each of us in a position of leadership can learn and strive to emulate.

I still find it amazing what a strong impression those two brief encounters had on me – a lesson in the power of true and genuine leadership and the importance of truly being able to see, hear and acknowledge the people with whom we come into contact, no matter in how trivial a way.

Next time I’ll start sharing some experiences from my recent travels to Germany and Poland – it’s been a month since I returned so it’s high time I let you into some of my adventures!

Farewell, Faithful Friend

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It’s always heartbreaking to lose a beloved fur-child. It’s even harder when it’s a retired guide dog who has given so much of her life and energy helping you live the independent life you want. And harder still if you happen to be on another continent at the time.

Sitting in our Airbnb apartment in Wroclaw, Poland on the evening my retired guide dog, Eccles, passed away, I found myself reflecting on the 12 ½ years she and I had spent together.

I smiled when I remembered our very first meeting when Eccles refused to acknowledge my existence, waiting patiently for her beloved trainer to rescue her from the total stranger she’d been lumped with. And at how quickly the bond of trust and love developed between us despite that inauspicious beginning. I thought of how many hundreds of times she and I must have traipsed from home, to the train station, down to the office in Simon’s Town, and back again at the end of the day. And how she would grab her squeaky toy and bounce round the office with it, squeaking joyfully to let us know it was time to stop working and head home. I laughed, remembering how she had hidden under the bed for the first three months we had Emily – desperately trying to avoid the savage paws and jaws of the young pup – until she rediscovered her ability to play.

I recalled how Eccles in essence retired herself when she was 11 years old, preferring to stay snoozing on her blanket rather than accompanying me to events. And I remembered her last final months when she seemed to find her inner naughty puppy –testing boundaries that had been out of bounds to her as a guide dog – and most often getting away with her naughtiness because her love of life was simply to infectious for me to chastise her.
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Eccles was by far the gentlest of my 3 guide dogs. Where Leila tended to barge through people like an armoured tank (a trait shared by Fiji), Eccles would politely manoeuvre her way round people with a diffident but determined manner. She could also be a little scatter-brained – on one occasion she was so busy thinking about something else that she started walking in the opposite direction until I laughingly stopped her and turned her round.

Where Leila and Fiji would be quite likely to wander off and amuse themselves when they were off-duty, Eccles would prefer to sit at my feet until she was needed. Mind you, it was Eccles who pulled her leash out of my dad’s hand and wandered from one side of an auditorium to the other to find me when I was giving a presentation at a Toastmasters conference (you’ll need to get a copy of my book “A Different Way of Seeing” to read the whole story).

Though I have absolutely no doubt we took the right decision in letting Eccles go, I have to live with the feeling that I let her down because I wasn’t there with her at the end. I can’t express how grateful I am for the technology that made it possible for us to have a half hour WhatsApp conversation with our vet to really understand the options we faced. And I’m even more grateful for the strength and courage of our friend, Claire van Zyl, who was looking after our home and dogs while we were away – at least I know Eccles was with someone she knew and adored as she slipped into her final sleep. But it was inexpressibly hard not to be there and be able to say goodbye, and that pain will remain with me for a very long time.

Farewell, my beautiful Eccles, and thank you for the very many wonderful memories of our time together – I’ll treasure them always…
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