Out and About with Fiji
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.
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.
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.
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!
As a guide dog I get to have lots of fun that my doggy sisters, Emily and Allie, don’t. Working with mom is one of them and visiting places along with the South African Guide-Dog Association is another.
I love going to visit community groups, companies and schools as part of the marketing initiative to help raise funds and awareness about my special work as a guide dog. I’ve done lots of these visits in the time I’ve been working with mom and each one is different. I’d probably say that my favourite places to visit are schools because the learners make such a fuss of me, but I’ve also met some wonderful adults who are keen to make friends.
Best of all, mom and whoever we’re working with from the SA Guide-Dog Association get to do all the work. All I have to do is wag my tail and look pretty, which is easy for me. And yet, somehow, I land up being the star of the show – every single time!
This month mom and I are going with Teagan from the SA Guide-Dog Association to a number of different Probus Chapters. We start tomorrow in Milnerton and I can’t wait!
I swear, whoever came up with the saying that it’s a dog’s life, meaning something bad, was crazy. I’m a dog, it’s my life… and I absolutely love it!
If you’d like me and mom to come and visit your company, or your child’s school it’s probably best to contact mom and chat to her – I’d love to do so and am sure mom would too! XXXXX
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!
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.
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…
I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.
So yes, I have plenty to share with you.
But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…
Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.
I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?
All I’m saying is watch this space…
It’s really not hard to find an enticing restaurant in Cape Town, no matter what type of food you’re looking for. I’ve already written a number of reviews of places that welcome Fiji and this is another of those. But this restaurant, Louis on the Block, in Bergvliet, has an added bonus – they’ve made their venue accessible to people who are mobility impaired as well.
Craig, Fiji and I have eaten at Louis on the Block in Children’s Way, Bergvliet a number of times. Not only do we enjoy their delicious, reasonably priced food and good service, but I’m always impressed by how disability-aware they are.
My guide dog, Fiji, is always warmly welcomed into the restaurant. On one momentous previous visit Fiji was offered not just a bowl of water but a snack as well, which she was most put out when I declined. I know some of you may be thinking it was unfair of me to deprive her of her snack when Craig and I got to eat. Here’s the thing: if Fiji learns to look for food at restaurants she’s slipped over the line into begging – and a begging dog is downright unpleasant for everyone!
What really impresses me about Louis on the Block is that the restaurant is also accessible to those with physical disabilities. Though there are steps up to the main entrance, they have a second stepless entrance that’ll easily accommodate wheelchairs. The tables aren’t crammed together so the space is fairly easily navigable, and the restrooms are also spacious enough to allow access to a wheelchair.
Over the years I’ve been to a large number of restaurants that are happy to accommodate my visual impairment and my guide dog. Sadly I doubt the same is true for a person with a mobility impairment. So it’s really great to experience a restaurant that is so aware of the needs of all their customers, no matter what!
If you’ve never been to Louis on the Block in Bergvliet, Fiji and I would definitely recommend you give them a try –with apologies from Fiji for not being able to vouch for the food herself.
Another place Fiji and I go on a regular basis is the Bluebird Market, in Muizenberg. It’s a great place for the Lakeside and Muizenberg communities to spend a few enjoyable hours with good food, local wines and craft beers, diverse people… and a whole lot of dogs!
As a fussy vegetarian I especially enjoy the range of vegetarian food on offer – from scrumptious Falafel wraps to the most amazing cheese/chilli spring rolls. But don’t be worried you’ll go hungry if you enjoy meat – my husband has never complained about the numerous meat options on offer.
Since the market is welcoming to dogs Fiji loves going there as well. Interestingly I’ve observed that she seldom gets overly excited about the other dogs running around and, in fact, will sometimes do little more than lift her head to observe a passing dog and then go back to sleep. It would be a lie to say she always behaves like a perfect guide dog – with so many people and so much food it’s hardly surprising she’s tempted to sniff around to see what snacks she can find for herself. We try to discourage her but well, I’m sure you know what Labradors are like when it comes to the possibility of food!
I’m not sure the Bluebird Market would be easy for someone with a mobility impairment to navigate their way round. There are simply too many people and too little space. Having said that, the market building is equipped with ramps with a gentle gradient with the only exception being the step up into the book shop on the premises.
From my perspective as a blind person, the only problem I have is that the market is generally full and loud, which can make it hard for me to orientate myself in the building. But then I don’t think it would be much fun on my own so I always have a sighted guide there to assist me if I need to get around. Having said that, I regularly have total strangers offering me assistance there so Fiji and I could probably manage on our own should we ever need to.
Overall, both Fiji and I really enjoy the Bluebird Market and would recommend it to any friends – human and canine!
Cape Town is a beautiful place. Anyone who’s been here will tell you that. And it’s not just visitors who feel that way – as residents we know it, too! But sometimes it’s easy for us to take that beauty for granted since we’re constantly surrounded by it.
Unlike Durban (the city I grew up in), which has a fairly uniform climate, Cape Town has very distinct seasons which impacts on life in Cape Town– in both what we wear and what we do. Naturally, the change of the seasons affects Fiji and I as much as it does everyone else.
Now that the autumn coolness has started settling into Cape Town my morning walks with Fiji have taken on a slightly different character. Gone are the unpleasantly warm summertime walks that see both Fiji and myself heading for a long cool drink of water on our return home. Gone are the days we dash from one teensy piece of shade to another, desperately trying to stay out of the blazing sun as much as possible. Gone too are the days of gusting wind that make it hard for us to walk since we can’t hear the sounds of approaching cars.
Thankfully those problems generally pass with the summer. Instead we’re able to walk down the road with comfort and ease. In fact, the walks are so pleasant that I often find my mind wondering as we progress, with the gorgeous scents of the lush vegetation enveloping us as we pass. Of course, every now and then my mind is snatched back from whatever pleasant reverie it’s stolen off to because Fiji has seen, scented or heard The Dreaded Enemy – yes, autumn is a busy time for squirrels in our neighbourhood – but even Fiji doesn’t seem to be as manic about trying to chase them as she does earlier in the season.
Today as I was breathing in the scent of a lavender bush I took a moment to reflect on the beauty of the moment – standing there with a keen and happily wagging young guide dog, the scents and sounds of nature all around us… despite the occasional car or train that flashed past us – and I was once again reminded that Cape Town truly is an extraordinary place to live! Now, if only the winter rains would come and break the drought…