The Day Fireworks went Off in My Head

Accessible South Africa

For almost two years I’ve wanted to start a podcast. I knew what my podcast would be about, who my target audience would be and some of the people I’d like to interview. But somehow I never got round to making my ideas a reality. And it seemed that my podcast would be added to the ever-growing list of things I’d do “when I got round to it”.

Then I met a lady named Deirdre Gower, who runs a website on travel for people with a disability. The Accessible South Africa platform has information on services, accommodation, activities and venues that accommodate the needs of disabled people. And I totally fell in love with what Deirdre’s trying to do!

In one of our conversations Deirdre said she’d like to start an Accessible South Africa podcast… and suddenly fireworks started going off in my head…

We now have three episodes of the Accessible South Africa Travel Podcast out and I’m having so much fun interviewing people who are out there seeing the world despite their disability, and service providers who are making their services available to disabled travelers.

If you’re interested in travel, love inspiring stories, or are curious to learn more about how people with disabilities travel the world, and some of the wonderful travel experiences that are making their services inclusive to all, this podcast is for you – we’re not just there for the disabled community.

Subscribe to the podcast here: https://iono.fm/c/3715, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. And browse through the resources and information on the Accessible South Africa website: www.accessiblesouthafrica.co.za

Berlin: A Barrier of Colour and Creativity

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It’s essentially an art gallery. But in this gallery the paintings aren’t hanging on the wall, they’re painted on it. And the gallery is outside on a busy sidewalk of an equally busy road. Sounds unlikely? Well, read on…

I’d imagine that most people will at least have heard of the Berlin Wall – the wall that divided West and East Germany for almost 45 years until it was torn down in 1989. Naturally, with our interest in history, it was inevitable that Craig and I would seek out some of the remaining fragments of the wall while we were in Berlin.

That was how we landed up at the East Side Gallery – the largest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. I’m not really sure what I was expecting to find when we got there but it certainly wasn’t an array of brightly coloured art, and a highly festive atmosphere from buskers, entertainers and a multitude of tourists and German people basking in the sunshine of the early summer’s day.

The East Side Gallery is an open-air section of the infamous Berlin Wall that’s been turned into a brightly coloured mural of artworks. It’s 1316 m long and runs along the East German side of the wall on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin. It’s an official heritage site and is visited by over 3 million people each year.

What really caught my interest was the vibrancy of the experience of walking along the wall and drinking in the almost festive air of the place itself. The East Side Gallery is full of people – from tourists like ourselves wanting to experience the site, to locals also keen to soak up the atmosphere and remind themselves of the fairly recent past of their city and, of course, to buskers of all types who entertain the passersby hoping for a contribution in acknowledgement of their art.

Cds IMG 6241As we walked along listening to the buskers and, in Craig’s case, photographing the artwork we happened upon the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery Museum, which is a small but richly diverse museum detailing the history of the Wall. I was amazed at the number of exhibits they had chronicling the development of the Berlin Wall from the initial split, through the building of the Wall and the results thereof, right the way through to the reunification of Germany and how this news was received by leaders from around the world. They even have a room dedicated to the place of the Berlin Wall in popular culture, including a video of Pink Floyd’s The Wall concert that took place in July 1990, a few short months after the fall of the Wall.

Perhaps the most profoundly affecting exhibit in the Wall Museum for me was the video interview with a Soviet officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov telling the story of how a faulty reading from a Soviet satellite warning system on 26 September 1983 almost led to all out nuclear war. If he had reported the satellite sighting to his superiors it would almost certainly have resulted in a retaliatory strike on American and NATO targets and a full scale nuclear war. Thankfully, Petrov had sufficient concern about the veracity of the report that he chose not to contact his superiors. I can’t even begin to imagine how different a world we would be living in had he sent that report. It’s enough to give one the shivers!

If you’d like to learn more about the 1983 Missile Incident, here’s a link to an article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov

While the East Side Gallery is completely accessible, with wide pavements and no steps, sadly the Wall Museum might prove more of a challenge to someone with a mobility impairment. It’s on the third floor of a building and I didn’t see an elevator – but maybe there was one hiding somewhere amongst the exhibits, so it’s probably worth checking out for yourself if you’re interested in visiting and have a mobility impairment.

Berlin: A Disconcerting Experience

Cds IMG 1076One of the most unexpected sites we visited in Berlin was the headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security, a building of which has been converted into the Stasi Museum. The museum has exhibitions showing how the Stasi, the secret police, controlled almost all aspects of life in the DDR, the German Democratic Republic.

It wasn’t the museum itself that was unexpected. It was my response to the exhibits in the museum. I’ve been reflecting on why I reacted so strongly against what was on display.

As we moved around from one room to another, one floor to another, we were surrounded by examples of the repressive nature of the Stasi – with extreme propaganda, devices that were used to spy on people, mechanical and electronic bugging devices, and room after room of notes and files on people who had been under this extreme “supervision”. In reality, almost everyone was spied on by the Stasi in every aspect of their lives. You never knew when you were being watched – even your own neighbours might turn out to be Stasi informers, as we read time and time again in the files.

I found my discomfort and resistance growing as we walked from one room to the next with Craig explaining each item and reading me the information boards in each room. My discomfort got so bad that I eventually asked Craig to stop reading the boards and refused to touch any of the interactive displays – I simply couldn’t do it!

I found myself coming back to the same thought time and time again, “This could have happened in South Africa during apartheid.

And that’s where my discomfort came from – it was just a little too close to home in reminding me of the terrible environment that so dominated our country when I was growing up in South Africa.

And yet, perhaps my extreme response to the Stasi Museum is also important as a reminder of how much South Africa has changed since the overthrow of apartheid. Granted, we still have a long and hard road ahead before we truly move beyond apartheid, but we have achieved a significant amount as we move towards inclusion, diversity and equality in our beautiful land.

So, despite the discomfort I experienced, I should be grateful to the Stasi Museum. In fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, because of the discomfort I felt, I should be grateful to the museum. Because we should never forget the tyranny of living in a society that believes it has the right to tell its citizenry how to feel, how to act and, most importantly, seek to divide one group and set them up to spy on others.

What Actually Happened to Me in October

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Those of you who’ve read Fiji’s article from 13 November may be a little confused, not to mention concerned, about what she said. So, as she suggested, here’s my summary for my “people friends”, as Fiji so eloquently put it.

On 4 October I was hospitalized due to an allergic reaction to some antibiotics. Then my body went into anaphylactic shock, which is a severe, sometimes life-threatening, allergic reaction. The medical team at the Emergency Room at Constantiaberg Mediclinic gave me a shot of adrenalin… and then a second shot when I didn’t respond to the first. And then they sent me to ICU (Intensive Care Unit) since my blood pressure levels dropped dangerously low as a result of the double-dose of adrenalin.

Here’s where it starts to get a little complicated. One of the readings they were monitoring in ICU gave the medical team cause for concern, since it can indicate the onset of a heart attack. So they kept me in ICU for two nights, High Care for 3 nights and then put me in a General Ward for an additional 2 nights to make absolutely sure I was okay.

And gradually I was allowed to move around more – from being stuck in bed for the first day, to being allowed only to sit on a chair for the following 3 days and then, eventually, being allowed to walk around the ward.

What made it frustrating for me was that I felt absolutely fine throughout the experience. If I’d been feeling bad I would probably have welcomed being kept still. But that wasn’t the way it turned out to be.

Anyway, the worrying blood readings eventually dropped back to more acceptable levels and I was eventually allowed home. But my doctor gave me strict instructions to clear my diary – by which he meant do absolutely nothing – for two weeks until I’d been checked over by a cardiologist. Which explains why I haven’t been blogging, why I didn’t do the CTSB Walk with a Vision event, why Fiji and I didn’t attend the SA Guide Dogs Association World Sight Day Dinner. And it also explains why I didn’t get to speak at the Professional Speakers Association Midterm Conference.

I guess by now you’ve realized that the cardiologist gave me a clean bill of health, or I wouldn’t be writing this. In fact, the 3 doctors I’ve consulted since being discharged from Constantiaberg have told me there has been no long-term consequences – apart from the fact I need to avoid penicillin from now on. And I’m confident the final doctor I need to see in the coming week will tell me exactly the same thing.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sorry to see the end of October – it wasn’t my best month ever. Having said that, I want to acknowledge the amazing care I received from the medical team at Constantiaberg Mediclinic, who were superb. Even the food was good which, considering I’m a fussy vegetarian, is saying a lot. And, of course, I also want to send out my heartfelt thanks to my family and friends who kept me sane (or at least no more insane than usual) with their visits, their messages and the wishes sent on Facebook and WhatsApp. They really helped! And finally, I am eternally grateful for the love and support shown by my husband, Craig – I know my absence created chaos at home with the dogs and the general running of the house, but Craig kept everything under control and gave me day by day updates of how the dogs the closest I have to children and at least I knew they were well looked after while I was in hospital.

All that’s left to say is that I hope I can now get back to sharing the final posts from my trip to Germany and Poland, and some of the exciting things that have been happening in my life recently.

Paws for Thought on What’s Been Going On

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Tomorrow is a very special day – it’s my mom’s birthday. She won’t tell me how old she is, but last week would have been my aunt Leila’s 161st birthday and I don’t think mom could possibly be as old as that. For those of you who don’t know, Leila was mom’s first guide dog. Though I never got to meet her I read all about her in mom’s book, “A Different Way of Seeing” and she sounds like lots of fun.

But this article isn’t about Leila. It’s about mom and what’s been happening over the past few weeks.

Just over a month ago mom went away for a week. Dad told me that mom was in hospital because she’d taken some medicine that made her very ill. So she had to stay in hospital,
whatever that is. To me it sounds like she had to go and stay in the vet’s dog kennels, but somehow I know that isn’t quite right. Even though I listened when dad explained it, it still didn’t make much sense to me.

Anyway, I was very sad while mom was away. My sisters Emily and Allie were also sad, but not as sad as me because I’m mom’s guide dog and I wasn’t able to look after her like I should have.

Even when mom came back she couldn’t take me for walks for a while. You won’t believe how happy I was when we were able to go for our first walk, more than three weeks after she went away. Even now we don’t walk as much as I’d like but at least we’re working almost like normal again.

I’m sure mom will explain what happened so all her people friends can read this and understand. Like I said, I don’t really understand. But I want to send lots of wags out to my dad who fed us, took us out for walks and looked after us while mom was away –it made me a little bit less sad.

But please don’t worry – everything’s fine now. Mom’s back home and is able to do all the stuff she used to do.

Like I said, tomorrow is a very special day. And all us doggies want to wish mom a very happy birthday tomorrow. No matter how old she’s turning, she’s our mom and we love her lots and lots!

Berlin: The Abandoned Symbol that Became an Icon

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One of the most charming icons of Berlin I discovered on our trip were the Ampelmännchen – the “little walking men”. Originally designed in 1961 in East Berlin, these charming pedestrian traffic signals are one of the few East German symbols to have survived German reunification.

Not only can these charming walking men be seen on pedestrian crossings throughout Berlin, they’ve also given rise to a multimillion Euro industry as tourist souvenirs of the city. No, I’m not saying that tourists are allowed to dig up traffic lights and take them home with them. That would be silly, not to mention turning the busy roads of Berlin into a driving nightmare. But tourists can buy a wide range of Ampelmänn products from T-shirts, key rings, erasers, sweets, chocolates, earrings, and a host of products emblazoned with the iconic images.

I took the time to feel a large Ampelmänn statue outside one of their retail outlets and got a good sense of what the fuss was all about. I personally think that part of their charm comes from the hat worn at a jaunty angle by the Ampelmännchen – they make the figures seem so friendly and positive that one simply has to smile.

I’m not usually one who falls prey to marketing but even I simply couldn’t resist the adorable Ampelmännchen earrings dangling so enticingly from the rack. To be honest, I didn’t really put up much of a fight and now a pair of bright green walking man earrings are nestled safely in my jewellery box to remind me of my time in Berlin.

The photo shows the Ampelmänn outside the Ampelmänn retail store – looks like we were photo-bombed by puppy-dog.

Paws for Thought: You Can’t Choose Your Family.

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Whoever said you can’t choose your family was so right. Yet my sister Emily and I totally fell for it when mom and dad told us we’d be able to choose our new sibling from TEARS animal rescue. Because, if that were the case, how did we land up with the dog whose first act was to snap at me?

Let’s just say that our first few weeks with Allie were a little tense. I mean, how would you react if someone just dropped a brand new person into your fairly ordered life and said, “Hey, here’s your new sister – now everyone play nicely!” I’d bet you’d also be a little unsettled. So it took me and Allie a bit of circling round each other and muttering before we settled down to some serious play.

I’ll admit that everything became a lot less stressful when mom convinced me that Allie wasn’t going to take over my guide dog duties. And having an Allie-sister actually became fun when dad started running with both of us.

For those who want the details, Allie’s an 18 month old Labrador crossed with an alligator. At least, that’s how it seems since she loves to play-bite me on the legs. She’s full of energy and is intensely curious about absolutely everything. She’s somehow convinced dad that she’s allowed to sleep on the couch, which none of us other dogs have ever been allowed to do.

Allie used to cry when mom and I went for a walk, until dad bought her a toy that spits out pellets of food as she bats it around the house. Don’t tell mom, but sometimes I’m tempted to stay home to play with the toy instead of going for a walk. But I really love walking so I’m not too tempted. But maybe just once … just till I get one of those pellets!

Allie’s now so much part of our family that I’ll even let her drink out of my water bowl when I’m drinking, which I never let other dogs do. And it’s so much fun when Allie and me gang up on our oldest sister, Emily!

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After a somewhat rocky start, I’m glad Allie has become my sister. Though there are times she can be a bit of a handful. Which is why I snapped at her last week – but just a little bit, I promise. And maybe that was just payback for her snapping at me the first time we met…

When it comes down to it, even though it’s true you can’t choose your family, I’m pretty sure I’d have chosen Allie to be my sister even if I had been allowed to choose.

Welcome to the family and lots of wags, little sister, Allie!

Look Who Made It into People Magazine!

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I have absolutely the best friends and colleagues! This was proved yet again when not one, but two people forwarded me an interview request from Media Alerts. It seemed that a journalist from People Magazine was wanting to interview women who are leading a successful life despite a disability.

Of course I replied…

And here’s a link to the article that appeared on 2 August this year – hope you enjoy it!

Berlin: Another Great Accessible Travel Experience

Cds IMG 0069The Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most well-known sites. It’s synonymous with a whole lot of history, having been the seat of German government from 1894 until it was seriously damaged in a mysterious fire in 1933, an act that has historically been linked to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. Following the split of Berlin into East and West, both governments moved their location – I grew up with Bonn being the centre of West Germany’s government. It was only after the reunification of Germany took place in 1990 that the building was completely restored and from 1999 its once again housed the German government.

With all this history in mind it was obvious that we would try to explore the Reichstag. Incidentally, while they do offer tours, you have to pre-book and may have your reservation cancelled at any time. That happened to us when we first booked, but thankfully our second attempt was successful.

What I didn’t expect when I visited the Reichstag was how accessible the tour would be for me as a blind tourist. We were met at the door, escorted through security and guided directly to an elevator that’s used by people working in the building, rather than the tourist elevators that go directly to the famous Reichstag dome.

When we reached the glorious glass dome overlooking Berlin I was offered an audio guide and a set of tactile images of many of Berlin’s best known sites that can be seen from the dome. I was even asked if I’d like to take the tactile representations with me on the tour but since the box was bulky, not to mention heavy, I declined with a smile and thanks. But I did take the audio guide.

From there the tour follows a set route around the inside of the dome. I was able to trace my way round using the handrail and the audio guide automatically triggered at specific points – if you stop, so does the audio recording. I thought this was a great approach since we all walk at different speeds and you don’t have to fumble with the unit to get it to play when you stop.

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The tour gives you a bird’s eye view of Berlin, which again was a different perspective from that I’d seen before. It also gives you the opportunity to look down into the chamber where the government sits, which is interesting in its own way. And yes, I’m totally aware how odd both of those statements sound coming from a blind person.

It’s not only visually impaired tourists whose needs are catered for at the Reichstag. There were no steps in the route we used to access the dome, and the entire tour of the dome is done using ramps. Not only does this make it accessible for people with mobility impairments but it also keeps people moving smoothly without bottlenecks – no fast-moving people getting frustrated by those who take time climbing stairs!

We often hear references to German efficiency and, having toured the Reichstag, I can certainly attest to that national trait! My only disappointment was that I still don’t have a definitive answer to who set that mysterious fire in 1933!

Seeing Berlin Differently – A Morning on the Spree

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As I’ve said before, I like to gain a sense of what a city’s like before I visit, by researching on the web, and by reading both fiction and non-fiction books set there. But somehow all the information becomes a whole lot more real when I’m actually there. And I try to supplement what I’ve read by getting an overview of the city before digging in deeper.

Sometimes I get an overview of the reality of a city by catching a hop-on hop-off buss. They’re a great way to learn about a city and discover which sites you may want to visit.

One of my favourite ways to get an overview of a city is by boat. And that’s what we did in Berlin – and not just a small boat with us and a skipper/guide; this time we went on a much larger vessel that had a food and drinks service, a full crew, and the history was provided on a pre-recorded soundtrack. May be not as personal as what we did in Wroclaw, but still an amazing experience!

The tour we were on took us round Museum Island, the area that is said to have been the birthplace of Berlin. As you move slowly up and down the Spree River, you gain a very different perspective of the city – certainly it’s different from how you experience the city on foot.

Looking at the tranquility of the Spree now, with countless restaurants and faux beaches lining it’s banks, it’s hard to believe that at one stage vessels were warned against dropping anchor in the Spree in case of mines or unexploded WWII bombs. As a natural barrier between East and West Berlin, the Spree was considered a no-mans land during the time Berlin was a divided city. Happily now it is back to being a tourist attraction, especially in the heat of high Summer.

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As you journey past places of interest you can see symbols of the diverse history of Berlin – from Frederick the Great, through the Nazi era, and both East and West Berlin. And as you pass the buildings and sites, the soundtrack fills in any gaps in the story of Berlin you may have.

I’ll admit it felt a little surreal to be floating down the river whilst above us trains occasionally sped across the many bridges connecting the two banks of the river. I found myself glancing up nervously once or twice as a train thundered overhead wondering what would happen if the bridge collapsed… But happily it didn’t happen!

Despite my vague disquiet about the trains, I found the cruise on the Spree River to be a great way to get an overview of the city, sipping a cup of steaming tea as the journey unfolded. Or, if you prefer, a beer or a glass of wine – a local Riesling, of course!

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