Out and About with Fiji

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And Then the Lights Went Out!

The image shows a blonde Labrador Retriever grinning at the camera

Last week I told you about the Love Your Guide Dog event that Fiji and I attended in Fish Hoek, Cape Town. I promised to tell you a little more about the fun evening we had.

I knew it was going to be a great evening when we arrived to be met by several other guide dogs, service dogs and pups-in-training. I mean, how could it be anything but brilliant with so many four-paws around! Fiji and I had a chance to catch up with some old doggy friends and their owners, and also to meet some wonderful teams we hadn’t met in person… umm… in dog? And all the furry friends were very well behaved – I don’t think I heard any growling or snapping from anyone. Though one or two of the pups did decide to add their voices during the guest speaker’s presentation.

Talking about the guest speaker, we heard from Zelda Mycroft, mother of inimitable ability activist Chaeli Mycroft, from the Chaeli Campaign. Zelda spoke about what it’s like being a mother to a highly independent and enterprising child with a disability – a refreshingly different perspective.

And then the lights went out…As did the sound…

And no, it wasn’t load shedding. It was actually a fault in one of the sub-stations and it left the whole of the Fish Hoek area without power for the rest of the evening.

From our perspective, I don’t think it placed much of a dampener on the evening. The organisers were well prepared for any eventuality – they had gas heaters to keep the food warm, and there were candles on the tables. Of course, for those of us without sight, it was pretty much business as usual. But we did see some creative problem solving going on, with people using the flashlights on their mobile phones to enable the sign language interpreters to communicate with the hearing impaired attendees, the servers being quick on their feet navigating their way round the many dogs stretched out on the floor, and speakers who suddenly had to contend with no amplification in a venue that seats 150 people… quite a remarkable feat all round!

Nor did the lack of illumination stop us from having a fantastic evening. Even if it wasn’t quite as we’d expected it to be.

If you’d like to find out more about the Love Your Guide Dog movement, here’s a link to their Facebook group.

Of course, you’ll probably fall in love with the many photos of beautiful pups-in-training. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Pride Comes Before a Fall

The image shows Lois and Fiji walking through a room of people

Pride comes before a fall. Or so the saying goes. And, of course, sometimes it’s all too true. Even when not taken literally – after all, I didn’t actually fall.

Let’s go back a bit and I’ll explain.

Fiji and I were attending the Love Your Guide Dog event in Fish Hoek. Love Your Guide Dog is an annual fundraiser for the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind organised by two wonderful ladies who are service dog owners – Janice Salthouse and Dawn Pilatowicz. It was our first time attending, and I’d been asked to propose the thanks at the end of the evening.

The event started with an introduction and walk-through of all the working dogs and puppies-in-training. And their respective humans, of course. And, with my typical stubbornness, I decided that Fiji and I would be introduced, and walk from the entrance to our table without sighted assistance. After all, Craig would be at the table and I was sure Fiji would walk straight to him without a problem. Which is where the term pride becomes relevant.

Because, you see, when we were about halfway to our table, my guide dog suddenly veered off towards another table to say hello to someone. And then proceeded to cause chaos by pulling me behind her through a forest of tables and chairs as she tried to reach Craig. All of which could have been avoided if I’d swallowed my pride and accepted sighted assistance.

What made it funny was that we’d been asked to provide a brief comment on something unique about our dogs for the introductions. And it was at the precise moment when Janice, who was reading the introductions, read that Fiji was easily distractable that Fiji veered so vastly off course… demonstrating exactly what I’d written.

When Fiji and I took part in a show at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival last year, our show’s producer told me I should consider trying stand-up comedy. Maybe Fiji was simply trying to show me how exquisite her sense of comedic timing is. Maybe she was just wanting to say hi to whomever was at that table. Or maybe she just got distracted. I’ll never know for sure.

Regardless of her rationale for doing what she did, Fiji landed up getting the first laugh of the evening.

And what a fun evening it turned out to be. But you’ll have to wait for next time to hear the details…

With thanks to Tania Robbertze Photography for the photo of Fiji and I at the event.

Celebrating Four Years

A dark-haired woman sitting on the floor with a blond labrador

Today is a special day – Fiji and I met for the very first time exactly four years ago, on 28 February 2016. I can hardly believe my beautiful guide dog and I have been working for that long. In many ways it feels like it was only yesterday that we met. Yet I can’t deny that our bond has grown much stronger over that time.

I thought it might be fun for Fiji and I to reminisce on that meeting. Here’s a transcription of our conversation.

Lois: I wasn’t certain what to expect when we first met. And I was a little nervous because I could still remember how dismissive my previous guide dog, your sister, Eccles, had been when she and I met.

Fiji: Well, mom, I was also a bit nervous – at least you’d had a guide dog before so you kind of knew what to expect. For me it was all brand new. So, when Cheryl brought me into the room, I looked at you and didn’t know what to think. Especially when you sat on the floor and watched me sniff my way around the room. I really didn’t know what you expected of me. So I eventually wandered over, as if by accident, and sat down hear you. But not too near, just in case.

Lois: I remember that. I was curious to see what you’d do. And I was glad you decided to curl up close enough that I could reach out and pat you.

Fiji: Oh come on, did you really think I’d pass up the opportunity of getting patted? You know how much I love it!

Lois: Fair enough. But I didn’t know that back then. I also remember that the first time you made me laugh was later that night, when Cheryl and I came into the room and found you curled up on my bed, with your head on my pillow. It was just so cute! So completely naughty. But so cute!

Fiji: Would you believe me if I said I was actually just trying to warm the bed up for you, Mom? Besides, it’s not like you were using it right then.

Lois: True. I really shouldn’t have left you in the room when I went to chat to Cheryl. No wonder you decided to try your luck.

Fiji: Exactly (Fiji wags her tail)

Lois: After that we got on fairly well. And we seemed to work well together.

Fiji: Well, it didn’t take me long to realize that you were already quite well trained and that I’d just need to work on a few small things to get you back into top form. Even though you did seem a bit nervous at first. So I think I managed to train you quite fast, with the help of Cheryl and Joel.

Lois: Do you remember when I went home to visit your doggy sisters during training?

Fiji: Of course I remember. I was very cross with you… And very happy when you came back the next morning, though I didn’t want to let on. I leapt up and grabbed your arm to tell you I wasn’t going to let you get away with behaviour like that again – that you were my mom and that I was to be there to look after you. And then you hugged me and I forgave you.

Lois: I think we’ve had a pretty good last four years, don’t you?

Fiji: For the most part. We’ve had some fun adventures and have met some lovely dogs and people. We’ve gone to plenty interesting places. But I’ve also been worried about you a few times -like when you tripped over that step and hurt yourself. And when you went away for a week because you got sick. And when you left me with dad and went to do something in Ghana. I always miss you when you go away without me. Because I love working with you and want to be with you always.

Lois: I know sometimes I go places without you. I always want to take you, but sometimes it’s just not possible. But I always come home, don’t I?

Fiji: Yes, you do. And then I grab your arm again to remind you that your place is with me and my place is with you. And then you hug me and everything’s fine again.

Lois: So, Fiji, what’s going to happen in the next four years?

Fiji: I think you’re going to walk me three times a day every day. And you’re going to start feeding me lunch as well as breakfast and supper. And you’re going to actually let me chase the squirrels when we see them.

Lois: Umm, maybe not.

Fiji: Oh. Well, I had to ask…

Fiji and I also want to send out a huge thank you to those who have been part of her journey to this point – her puppy walkers, Jenny and Mike, Beata and Piotr, all the wonderful people at the South African Guide-Dog Association for the Blind, the hundreds of adults and children that Fiji and I have been privileged to talk to, and of course all our friends and family – human and canine!

Thinking about the first day I met Fiji makes me realize how much independence she’s given me and how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the time we’ve been working together. She is a generous-natured and loving dog with a number of unique quirks – some of them totally endearing… some not so much. As I write this, she’s lying curled up by my feet, enjoying the cool air from the ceiling fan. With one eye and ear open, just in case I need her to do something.

You’ll be able to read more about our adventures together when the updated version of A Different Way of Seeing 2.0 gets released shortly – as an ebook and as an audio book. There’s plenty of Fiji stories in the book, I promise!

Happy anniversary to us, Fiji – and many more wonderful years of working and playing together!

Speaking at The Adventure Kids Club

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It’s no secret that I’m nervous when speaking to groups of young children. For one thing, I know I’m going to have to work hard to get them to focus on what I’m saying when all they really want to do is meet my guide dog, Fiji. But it’s also hard to know how well the youngsters grasp the concept of blindness and what it means in my life.

This nervousness probably explains why I actively seek the opportunity to talk to learners. After all, don’t they say the best way to work through your fears is to confront them? In reality, getting to spend some time explaining what life is like for me as a blind person always gives rise to a fascinating conversation between myself and the youngsters concerned. And a recent visit to the Adventure Kids Club in Cape Town was no exception.

My audience was a group of fifty youngsters and a few adult coordinators, who sat patiently as I spoke about my life and then asked a flood of questions, ranging from how I eat, right the way through to what techniques I use to ensure I’m not excluded when it comes to social activities with sighted friends. The Adventure Kids Club is a community organisation set up by Maria Strachan in Ysterplaat in Cape Town. Maria started the group as a way of inspiring and encouraging youngsters from the community, many of them coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. And, in case you’re wondering about the coincidence that Maria and I have the same surname, yes, our respective husbands are cousins.

As often happens when Fiji comes with me to speak at a children’s event, the youngsters had most fun when they got to come and say hello to her, and she loved the attention. It’s always so cute to see Fiji surrounded by a group of youngsters who want nothing more than to give her love and play with her. Only, maybe this time I gave my dog a run for her money on how to hold the kid’s attention – Maria asked me to bring my guitar and play a few songs for the group. Which I did – to an enthusiastic reception. Here’s a short clip of one of the songs I played:

https://www.facebook.com/cdstrachan/videos/10158090119251468/

Ultimately, I think both Fiji and I were lucky that we’d finished talking to the youngsters before the ice-cream arrived – I’m not sure that even a guide dog can capture a child’s attention when facing competition like that!

You Want Me to Talk about What?

several people sitting around a table, including Lois Strachan

It’s not often I feel nervous when going to facilitate a session on disability at an organisation. Yet that was definitely the way I was feeling as I climbed out of the Uber to run a recent day-long training at the Cape Town Society for the Blind (CTSB).

I wasn’t nervous about facilitating a daylong session, nor for presenting to students at CTSB – facilitation is one of the things I do on a regular basis and my relationship with CTSB over the past two years has meant I’ve spoken for them at a number of events, including presenting a keynote at their AGM, and another at a fundraising dinner, and I presented the commencement address at their graduation in 2018. So neither of those aspects made me anxious.

Rather, it was the topic that had my nerves working overtime – they’d asked me to speak about romantic relationships. And that topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Here’s the thing – I’m happy to tell the story of how Craig and I met (it was my guide dog, Leila’s fault). I’m equally willing to talk about how we accommodate my visual impairment with things like household chores. But going any deeper than that is just too personal for me. So, what made me nervous was how I’d reply if the conversation drifted into areas where I wasn’t comfortable.

In the end, the session proved to be both easier and harder than I’d anticipated. I described what I thought a good relationship might look like, and some signs that might indicate a relationship isn’t healthy. I shared stories from my life to illustrate what I meant in each case. Then the group spent a few hours asking questions and sharing their own experiences about relationships.

What made it easier than I’d initially feared was the fact that the group respected the boundaries that I wasn’t really comfortable talking about. What made it harder was to listen to some of the stories of what the students had experienced, and were still experiencing.

I left the CTSB with a profound sense of gratitude for all that I have in my life. Not to mention a sense of respect and awe for the strength, resilience and determination of the students I’d been privileged to spend the day with.

PS: Fiji also had loads of fun, since she got to meet two other guide dogs, which happens only rarely when I speak at organisations.
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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.

Blind date

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.

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