Out and About with Fiji

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A Video of a Working Guide Dog

Do you know how hard it is to video Fiji guiding me across a road? It should be easy, right? But maybe not so much when you have one hand on the guide dog harness and the other hand providing dog treats at each step of the process. Because that leaves no hands to hold the phone to record the whole thing.

So, when a friend asked if she could video Fiji working as part of a lesson for one of the schools she works with, I jumped at the chance. Even better, she asked if Fiji and I could speak to the learners as well, which I’m always happy to do. Okay, I got to speak to the learners. Fiji only had to look cute- which she does very well!

Shani gave me the video – so here it is!

Craig, please add link here.

Makhanda: The Cherry on the Top of the Cake

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Over the past few weeks I’ve given you a few teasers of what happened on my trip to Makhanda to perform in a show at the National Arts Festival 2019. Of course, there’s far more I could tell you about, but here’s a general overview… and a final surprise.

First, a huge shout out to everyone involved in the show. I had great fun getting to know the other performers, their sighted assistants and the amazing crew who worked with us. The entire trip was filled with special moments, laughter and fun. Whether it was sitting in the Pothole and Donkey pub cheering on others from the group who took to the stage to play a few songs, relaxing over supper and a glass of wine at one of the local restaurants with some of the group, or comparing experiences as we sat backstage waiting for the show to start.

One memory that will remain with me was sitting backstage on the second day. One of the performers, PJ Durr was idly running through one of the songs he was going to be performing, Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game. Our show director, Niqui began adding harmonies … and it wasn’t long before Gavin, Laurice and I added our own harmonies.

I know I haven’t really blogged about anything but the show. That’s because the show was the focus of our time in Makhanda. However, we did get some downtime – visited some great local restaurants, and I even got to see one other show. Fiji joined Craig on two runs – the Makhanda park run and a run through Makhanda and the surrounding area. And Craig and Afsana got to see a few shows and sample a few exhibitions and markets.

I will admit I was startled to see three donkeys pilfering from refuse bins as they strolled down the main road. And my surprise was nothing compared to Fiji’s. But I guess that’s just what happens in Makhanda!

A week after we got home we heard that our show had been awarded a Standard Bank Ovation Spirit of the Fringe award. Which rounded off the whole experience perfectly!

Here’s how the Standard Bank Ovation Awards are described on the National Arts Festival website:

“The Standard Bank Ovation Awards celebrate artistic innovation, excellence, the exploration of new performance styles and the courage to open new conversations during the National Arts Festival held in Makhanda.”

You can see all this year’s award winners here: https://www.nationalartsfestival.co.za/news/naf2019-ovation-awards-ceremony/

I’d definitely return to the National Arts Festival – I’d love to see more shows, spend time browsing the many attractions and immerse myself in the atmosphere of this amazing annual event.

The photo shows all the Blind Date performers and their sighted assistants… and Fiji… onstage right at the end of the show, just before taking our final bows.

Makhanda: It’s Showtime, Folks!

I wish I had time to describe the entire Blind Date Concert I took part in at the National Arts festival in Makhanda in June this year – the rich diversity of personalities, music, poetry and performances; the energy and wit of our dynamic MC, Fiks Mahola; the professionalism of our stage crew who managed our sound, lighting and props so efficiently; and, of course, our wonderfully responsive audiences.

I’d love to be able to share the entire experience with you so you could understand what a special show this was. But sadly, all I can do at this stage is to share a video of my own performance.

This was recorded on the second night of the show and includes an introduction by award-winning blind poet Lelethu “Poetic Soul” Mahambehlala, who graced each of us with a poem based on our own stories. Lelethu was dynamite, as I’m sure you’ll see when you watch the clip.

On that note, it’s showtime, folks! So, get ready for your cue…

Makhanda: Creating a Shared Vision.

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I know many people feel out of their depth when they’re put into a crowd of people they don’t know. And I suppose I can understand why – unless you’re comfortable chatting to people you don’t know, it can be quite a daunting experience.

So, how would you facilitate introducing a group of blind performers who haven’t met before? One would think it would be even harder, right?

And yet…

As the group of the blind performers, sighted assistants, technical crew and one guide dog met for lunch and a rehearsal ahead of the Blind Date Concert performances, it really didn’t seem hard at all. After the welcome by the SA Library for the Blind, we sat down over lunch to get to know one another, and very soon were laughing over stories of our experiences as blind and visually impaired people living in a sighted world. You’d be amazed at how much common ground we found about the tools and techniques we use to do the things we want to do.

Of course, as a group we represented pretty much the entire spectrum from quiet and retiring right the way through to outgoing and exuberant, but that didn’t seem to matter as we sat and chatted. And no, I’m not going to tell you where I think I fall on that continuum.

By the time our fun and energetic show director, Niqui Cloete-Barrass, from boost Creative Solutions, called us back to order to begin our first and only rehearsal, we were already a united team. Which listening to one another’s sets as we ran through the show only enhanced since it gave us a shared vision of what we could achieve with the show.

And so, amped with the energy of a great rehearsal, we left the SA Library for the Blind primed and ready for our early morning make-up calls and the following day’s show. Which is where I’m going to leave us – until next time, when I’ll tell you about the show itself…

Makhanda – The Evelyn Guest House and a Note from Fiji

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It’s no small undertaking to arrange a show with 13 performers when 9 of them are visually impaired and 1 of them is a dog. Yet, that’s what the South African Library for the Blind and the truly awesome project coordinator, Catherine Baron from Inkanyezi Events, managed to do. Without a hitch, I might add. And we were treated like royalty every step of the way.

Instead of staying at the Graham Hotel with the rest of the team, Afsana, Fiji and I were booked into the Evelyn Guest House, which is also owned by the hotel. My room was comfortable, spacious and – to my joy – had a garden where Fiji could run around and have necessary grass time.

Admittedly, I found the large open room difficult to navigate at first. Unsurprisingly, since it was an unfamiliar space. So I put my orientation skills training into practise and started to figure out the room layout.

Once I’d navigated my way round the room, I discovered the sound of the refrigerator was a great audio cue. I could always hear the fridge and knew where everything else was relative to it. And suddenly navigating the space became easy.

At the end of our second day in Makhanda, when Craig joined us, I was completely at home in the space. So, when Craig asked if we could turn off the fridge since it would keep him awake, I was so comfortable in the space that I could manage almost as well without it.

Going back to the guest house itself, it was cute to see how the staff took to Fiji. They were really great about making sure both she and I had everything we needed. And I appreciated how conscientious they were about keeping the outside gate shut so there was no danger of Fiji escaping to go and see some shows on her own.

Talking about Fiji, it was meant to be her turn to write an article for the blog today. But she was so warmly snuggled up in her new doggy bed that I didn’t want to disturb her. But don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll post an article soon.

On Independence – You’re Never Too Old to Learn

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I’ll admit I was a tiny bit nervous when accepting Afsana’s offer to accompany me to Makhanda so I could perform in the Blind Date Show at the National Arts Festival.

I wasn’t nervous about Afsana accompanying me – I knew she’d be a great travelling companion and that I’d be in safe hands. Rather, it was the unfamiliarity of travelling with someone other than Craig that gave me pause. While I’ve known Afsana for several years, we’ve never really spent much time together and I wasn’t certain how well she understood the challenges of travelling with someone who’s not only blind but is also a Type 1 diabetic. Oh, not to mention her occasionally boisterous guide dog, Fiji!

Yet, what a great traveling companion Afsana turned out to be! We spent hours chatting – on the flight to Port Elizabeth, on the two-hour bus journey to Makhanda, and over several meals before meeting the others who were performing in the show. And Afsana connected with Fiji as well, even teaching her a new command (“Reverse, Fiji”).

When Craig joined us at the end of our second day in Makhanda I made a discovery that’s given me lots to think through. When Afsana and I were navigating our way round Makhanda I did so with a greater level of independence than normal. And certainly a greater level of independence than when Craig joined us.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Craig deprives me of my independence. He doesn’t. But, when I’m with him I fall into the habit of letting him do most of the work when he’s guiding me. It’s just so much easier since I don’t have to concentrate as much on what’s happening around me.

Whereas, since Afsana left it to me to tell her when I might need guidance, I tended to work it out on my own.

What I need to figure out is whether or not I should break the habit of letting Craig do more of the work, or if it’s okay since I manage on my own the rest of the time. In reality, I guess the answer is somewhere between the two. Regardless, understanding how I manage my own independence has taught me that I’m never too old to gain insights into how I live my life. Which is valuable to me.

And, having the opportunity of getting to know Afsana better remains one of the highlights of a truly unforgettable time in Makhanda. I’m so glad I accepted her offer to come with me on the trip.

The photo was taken by Afsana and shows Fiji and me sitting at the back of the bus travelling between Port Elizabeth and Makhanda.
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You’ll Never Believe What I’m Doing This Weekend!

Grahamstown

Guess where I’ll be this coming weekend – the National Arts Festival in Makhana, formerly Grahamstown. And I’ll be playing a gig while I’m there!

I’m one of the artists performing at the Blind Date Variety Show that’s part of the Fringe Festival – details are in the advert. You can book on the National Arts Festival website: www.nationalartsfestival.co.za

And Fiji will be there with me so no doubt both she and I will blog about our experiences in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if you happen to be attending the National Arts Festival, it would be great to see you at our show…

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.

Guide Dog or White Cane – and the Winner is…

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A few days ago, I had two meetings at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. For various reasons that aren’t relevant to this post, I wasn’t able to take my guide dog Fiji with me. Instead I used my white mobility cane.

I have many blind and visually impaired friends who prefer to use a white cane as their primary mobility aid and they’re superb at it. But me, well… Let’s just say that because I generally use a guide dog, my cane skills aren’t that great.

Both rely on effective O&M skills – orientation and mobility for those who don’t know our jargon. Orientation is the ability to know your location using your other senses, and mobility is the ability to get from one place to another.

Here’s what I mean. I’m not used to walking into obstacles. Fiji usually walks me round things that are in our way. When using a white cane, I feel that life is much like a full body contact sport. I only know obstacles are there when I hit them with my cane tip, bounce off them, or fall over them. Also, I think I missed out when they were handing out senses of balance since I don’t have one. It’s okay when I’m with Fiji because she helps to balance me, especially when walking down stairs, which is probably my least favourite part of getting out and about. This absence of a sense of balance is magnified wen I’m using a white mobility cane – I simply don’t feel steady on my feet. And finally, I seem to battle to find straight. Again, that isn’t a problem with Fiji since I can leave it up to her. But when using a white cane, it’s up to me and I seem to spend my entire journey tacking from one side to the other.

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I know my cane skills would improve significantly if I were to use them more often, especially when travelling on my own. Because traveling independently with a cane leaves me feeling anxious, incompetent and unable. Which I hate.

I recently decided I needed to do something about that.

I’ve already contacted the O&M Instructor from the Cape Town Society for the Blind to set up a lesson so I can brush up on my obviously rusty cane skills. I also want to get a new, longer white cane since I’ve started walking faster since working with Fiji and a longer cane will give me a slightly longer reaction time when I encounter obstacles. I’ve also set myself the goal of becoming braver about using my cane independently so I can practice the skills I need.

Does this mean I’m going to use Fiji less? Absolutely not. Fiji will always be my first choice as a mobility aid. But it will definitely be valuable for me to be more comfortable using a white cane for those times when I can’t have Fiji with me.

To go back to the start of the post and answer the question, I firmly believe the winner will be me…. Because any way I can improve my levels of independence will help me be more effective in what I do.

Panic and Perseverance

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Sometimes the only way to get over our fear is to face it. And that’s what I had to do on Friday…

Here’s the back story: two weeks ago, I fell while walking with my guide dog, Fiji. In truth, I wasn’t badly hurt but it’s taken me time to heal from the various scratches and grazes on my hand, arms and knees. And I haven’t walked with Fiji while healing. The other thing you need to know is that they’ve been digging up sidewalks and roads to install fiberoptic cables in our neighbourhood, a fact that may or may not have contributed to my fall. But that’s not what this post is about.

Fiji’s been remarkably patient while my knees healed enough to climb steps without pain. Thankfully, during my time off most of the fiberoptic installation has been done. So I knew we wouldn’t be dodging teams of workmen when we ventured out for our first cautious foray on Friday.

What I hadn’t expected was how nervous I’d be about walking. Don’t get me wrong – I trust Fiji and her impeccable training. And it’s not like my fall was in any way her fault – I did it all on my own! but I still had to confront the disturbing question that kept nagging at me – what if I fall again?

I decided to take it one step at a time. And everything was fine. Until we stepped up onto one specific sidewalk.

I don’t know if other blind people experience this, but if something’s changed on a route I know well I have a momentary panic that maybe, just maybe I’m not where I think I should be. Which is scary. But then sanity reasserts itself and I know it’s only the spot where I’m standing that’s changed a little.

So, when I stepped onto that sidewalk and found soft, slippery sand instead of the grass surface I was expecting I had one of those moments. Then, as I moved past that panic and continued on my route, I found the drainage gutter I use as a navigational aid was MIA… well, it was covered by that same soft, slippery sand. So that was another of those moments. And by the time I reached the end of that seemingly interminable block I was a nervous wreck. In utter relief I stepped towards the down kerb to cross the road and leave that now-alien landscape… only to discover the entire sidewalk had crumbled.

Of course I made it safely to the end of my walk. And, of course, Fiji and I navigated that piece of sidewalk perfectly fine on our return journey – perhaps not with as much confidence as we usually do, but we made it just fine. And next time we walk it, it’ll be even easier. As will the time after that. Right up to the point that the company doing the fiberoptic installation come back and fix all the sidewalks and then we’ll have to go through the process of panic and perseverance all over again.

That’s just part of life!

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